Mary D’ Souza, India’s track and field trailblazer

Mary D’ Souza competed in the 100m and 200m races in the 1952 Helsinki Games. She was among the first Indian women to compete in Olympics.

Mary D'Souza training for the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.   -  The Hindu Archives

Mary D’Souza, who is among the first Indian women to compete in Olympics, ended a freewheeling conversation with Sportstar with a straightforward request:

“My daughter has spent four years researching my story, and has written a book called ‘You Can't Eat your Fame’. I hope that one of the publishers will publish my story, and I hope it will be an inspiration to future generations. Or perhaps a Bollywood movie. Haha. I am after all from Bandra and Bombay, the home of Bollywood.”

ARCHIVES: 1952 Helsinki Olympics: A fifth hockey gold for India

Indeed, Mary's story as a trailblazing female athlete is inspiring.

Born and raised in Bandra, Mary D’ Souza was a champion sprinter in the 1950s. She broke national records, won gold, silver and bronze medals at the Asian Games in Delhi in 1951 and at Manila Games in 1954. She made her Olympic debut at the 1952 Helsinki Games and held Asian records in the short sprints in 1956. She also played field hockey for India and was the country’s first female double international. Mary ran and competed almost seven decades ago, and became a household name.

Mary D’ Souza has won gold, silver and bronze medals at the Asian Games in 1951 and 1954.   -  The Hindu Archives


The Tokyo Olympics, in spite of the state of emergency in Japan and calls for cancellation, will run its course from July 23.

Just the other day, Usain Bolt expressed his wish to watch women sprinters in action in Tokyo. India’s Dutee Chand will represent India in the marquee 100m and 200m events. But it was Mary D’Souza and Nilima Ghosh who started it all for the Indian women by competing in the 100m sprint at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics in Finland.

Now 89, Mary D’Souza is currently stuck in Atlanta, USA because of the pandemic-caused travel restrictions. She has been enjoying her stay with daughter Marissa Sequiera and her family, but is still itching to return home.

She jogs her memory and shares her experience of competing in the 1952 Helsinki Games in this interaction with Sportstar, facilitated by her daughter Marissa.


Selection for the Helsinki Olympics in 1952:

At the first Asian Games in New Delhi, 1951, I won a bronze medal in the 200 metres and a silver in the 4x100 metre relay. Subsequently, I went to Madras for the Nationals in 1952. At that time, I had no idea that they were considering women athletes for the Olympics. I broke the all- India record in the 200 meters and in the 100 meters, and I was selected to go to Helsinki. It might as well have been a hurdles event, as I had so many hurdles in my journey to the Olympics.

Preparation for Helsinki Olympics in India:

The selected team was sent to Kasauli (Himachal Pradesh) for training. Kasauli has a military base, and we were sent there because of the cold weather there. They wanted us to get acclimatized for the Helsinki weather conditions.

Getting to Helsinki was like doing a hurdles event for me. Talent was not the only requirement. I needed money to get there, and it cost Rs. 5000, which was an enormous amount then. As a teacher, I earned only Rs. 80 rupees a month, out of which I gave Rs. 70 to my mother to help her run the house. I am one of 12 children. My father worked as a driver in the Railways. Even though it was an honour to represent India, it was an honour my family could not afford.

Around that time, Bombay was under Chief Minister Morarji Desai, and he would not release funds for wrestler Khashaba Jadhav, or me, to go to the Olympics. Later, the Centre changed its mind as it wanted to promote Indian Athletics at the Olympics. They contributed to my cause and it helped me get on that plane to the Olympics.

The beautiful people of Bandra heard about my plight and they organised a dance and card tournament called a 'whist' to raise funds for me to go to the Olympics. Ironically, the West Bengal team was flushed with funds.

Athlete Mary D'Souza in action.   -  The Hindu Archives


Entering the Olympic Village:

There was a welcome ceremony for each country. When we entered the Olympic village, they raised India's flag. The women's team was housed in a different area from that of the men's team, and in a college hostel for women.

Training in Helsinki:

Each country had a different training time, and in different venues. We went a week ahead of the Olympics. The Indian contingent also spent a week to ten days in Copenhagen to train and compete before the Olympics.

Coach of the Indian team

The women's team did not have a coach, but we had a female chaperone.

Competing in 100m and 200m

We were in Helsinki for experience. We knew that we did not have the world standard, even though I was good at the top of my game at the Asian level. For that matter, none of the other female Asian runners were of world standard. We were there to gain experience and to improve our sport by taking part in international competitions. And for that I am incredibly grateful.

On her performance:

My Olympics timings were not great. I was doing 12.7 and 12.8 secs though, before going there. I am not sure why my timing was bad. It could have been nerves, performing at such a big stage.

During the training and track meet in Copenhagen with the Danish athletes, I won that meet, and I have pictures of standing first versus the Danish athletes. My timing improved greatly thereafter. My personal best for the 100 meters was 12.3 secs, and for the 200 meters, it was 25.2 secs. (In the heats at Helsinki Olympics, Mary clocked 26.3s in 200m and 13.1s in 100m)

Was it asking too much of a 21-year- old Mary to deliver wonders at the Olympic Games?

I turned 21 while I was at the Olympics. It was the legal age for adulthood in India at the time, but there was no celebration, nor do I recall anybody wishing me on my birthday.

Missing the Melbourne Olympics in 1956 because of lack of funds. (Mary held the Asian Records in 1956):

This will go down as one of the greatest disappointments in my life. I was cheated of my rightful spot for the 1956 Olympic Games because of politics in the Indian track and field. I had won the Nationals and broke the National and Asian Records in the 100 and 200 meters in 1956. I have also held the National record for a short period of time in the hurdles.

I was in Australia at the beginning of 1956 for the World Cup Field Hockey Tournament in Sydney, Australia, and I was greeted warmly. The Australian, US, English, and other teams were impressed to see a track and field Olympian, who also played field hockey. The press made much of me, and wrote that they were looking forward to seeing me again in Melbourne for the Olympics. I gave several interviews to radio and the print press because of their interest. I was amazed to see them treat me like a celebrity, and valued my contribution, both in track and field and in field hockey.

The Bombay team which included Lavy Pinto, Violet (Cuckoo) Peters, Mary Leela Rao and others, went to Czechoslovakia to train. From there we went to London for coaching. While we were in London, the manager of the Indian team told me that they were not sending an Indian female team for the Melbourne Olympics. So I did not return to India.

I remember we had to sleep in the army tents during our training camps, or during track and field competitions. Our toilets were often just holes on the ground, and we had to have our showers in makeshift outdoor facilities. We have come a long way since then and I would love to see the beloved women of India seize the day with all the opportunities they have in this century and to surge ahead.

However, Mary Leela Rao returned as per instructions from her father who was the president of the Athletic Association. In my absence, she was sent to the Melbourne Olympics as the only female athlete. And I, who held the Asian and Indian records, was told a lie and hence stayed back in London. There was no TV then in London, nor did I know what was going on in India. I believed the manager. Only when I came back to India did I find out that I was deprived of my rightful place in the team.

It would have been a great honour to have represented India in two Olympics, and even at the age of 90, I feel distraught about what they did to me and how they cheated me of a chance to go to the Olympics for the second time.

Meeting Dana Zataopkova who won the javelin gold. Her husband was the great Emil Zatopek.

India had strong ties with Czechoslovakia. The Bombay Athletics Association invited the Zatopeks to India. We also trained in Czechoslovakia with Emil and Dana in 1956 before the Melbourne Olympics.

Only nine events for women were held at Helsinki:

It was a much smaller event for women, more like a college event than this massive money-making machine that it has turned out to be in the present day. In our time, athletes were all amateurs and we could not receive any money, advertisements or sponsorships because it would compromise our amateur status.

Her opinion on the current scene, especially, Dutee Chand, the 100m and 200m champion and qualifier for the Tokyo Olympics.

Unfortunately, I am not in touch with the current Indian track and field participants for the upcoming Olympics. But I am so proud of our Indian women athletes who are making giant strides, and doing the country proud. Particularly so because our women did well in the previous Olympics, and were the ones to bring home the medals. I wish them all the very best; they have my prayers and blessings to come back home victorious.

READ: Dutee Chand: Delighted to qualify, confident of performing well in Tokyo

But victory is not just about winning gold medals, it is striving to give your best. It is giving all that you've got. And remembering that you are a sports ambassador of your country.

The present generation has so much more funds, facilities and nutrition, things we did not have. I remember we had to sleep in the army tents during our training camps, or during track and field competitions. Our toilets were often just holes on the ground, and we had to have our showers in makeshift outdoor facilities. We have come a long way since then, and I would love to see the beloved women of India seize the day with all the opportunities they have in this century and to surge ahead.

Mary D'Souza winning the 200m race. In the 80 M hurdles she clocked 12.9 sec. to set up a new India record. (January 22, 1953).   -  The Hindu Archives


Your impressions / memories of Helsinki 1952, the second Olympics after World War:

I was so thrilled to represent India at the Olympics. It was my first flight. I couldn't believe I was on an air plane and going to Europe — something you could only dream of as air travel was a novelty. And here I was, on a plane and hoping I would land in one piece!

Facilities and food in Helsinki. Did you have language problems with locals. How much did she move about; in the city and country?

The food was excellent, a big buffet for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There were five kinds of cuisine to choose from and no limit to what you could eat. We were young and hungry and did justice to their offerings. There was never any complaint about the food or Finnish hospitality. It was a question of their National pride. They are the smallest country to host the Olympics, and they did a fabulous job, considering this was post World War II.

Regarding visiting the city, we did not have much time, we were strictly chaperoned, and could not move around freely. We did a little sightseeing on one day around the city, and another day was spent on shopping. There was hardly any time for anything else.

The Helsinki Games was historical as the Soviet Union, China and Israel made their Olympic debuts. There were others too. Did you get to meet their athletes?

The Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc athletes were put up in a separate village. We were housed with the Western Bloc countries, in a college campus.

We did not have much time to mingle with other athletes. We did meet most of the people on the field during practice. And athletes of some countries could not speak English. It was very amusing to see them get thrilled when they would hear us speak in English. They would remark that we spoke such good English.

Marjorie Jackson (Autralia) and Mary D'Souza (India) have a training run round the track at the Olympic village in 1952,   -  The Hindu Archives


We did meet some athletes when we were training. Countries were given different training times and schedule. I was truly fortunate to practice with Marjorie Jackson, who I did not know at that time, would go on to win the 100m and 200m finals.

The American men's team were very friendly. They would approach me and chat. I was thrilled to have made friends with Harrison Dillard and a few more. He came up to me when I was practising my starts, and asked me why I was not using blocks to start. I recall telling him that I did not have blocks. A few minutes later, he turned up and gave me a set of his blocks. This was such a blessing and I appreciated his generosity as I used those blocks for the rest of my career.

When I was done with my career, my daughter, who took up track and field in her high school and college, used it as well. We later left it behind in Khalsa college for other athletes to use.

Finland was known as the land of the Flying Finns because of feats achieved by the likes of Hannes Kolehmainen, Paavo Nurmi, Lasse Viren etc. Did you meet any of them?

Paavo Nurmi was known as the flying Finn, and we were honoured that he got to light the torch at the Olympics. That was the extent of me viewing him. I did not get to meet him, one on one. I remember when he came into the stadium, the entire crowd stood up on their feet and cheered. What a wonderful sight. He was very short, a lean man, but what a talented runner!

Emil Zatopek won three gold medals and became very famous:

I witnessed history in the making with his three gold medals, and his wife Dana, too, won a gold medal in javelin. They were a wonderful couple, and they shared the same birthday, a beautiful romantic story. I later got to train with this amazing couple with the Bombay track and field team, when we went to Czechoslovakia in 1956 for training for the Melbourne Olympics.

India’s men’s hockey team won the gold. Did you get to see the final or any other match?

No. Unfortunately, they did not take us to the men's hockey games. I was incredibly sad because I was our field hockey player, and I would have loved to have seen them play. We were on the same charter flight, but we did not see them in Helsinki. They were housed at a different venue. They trained and practised at different grounds. The Indian men's hockey team was the best in the world at that time, and it would have been great if they had allowed us to cheer them. We did share a couple of meals with the entire Indian contingent in one of the hotels where we got to chat with them, but that was the limit to our interaction.

Did you collect memorabilia, autographs in Helsinki?

I am so glad I have an autograph book with beautiful comments from some of the world’s greatest athletes. I did not have much money to shop for my family and friends who helped raise funds for my trip. But I did buy small matchbox covers which was all I could afford, and I gave them to the people who had helped me get to the Olympics by making contributions at the dance and card events.

Was the rivalry between USA and Soviet Union apparent to you all?

It is so interesting that the view from the boots on the ground is so different from the political views of countries. At least we were friends and there was no disharmony at all due to political ideology. It was like one big college meet. Yes, there was rivalry on the track, but outside of that, everybody was extremely friendly. It was not as big as the Olympics of now, and everybody tried to make friends with other countries, other people, and the atmosphere was very joyous and friendly.

Mary D'Souza with her family in Atlanta, US.   -  Special Arrangement


Will you be seeing Tokyo Olympics on TV?

Most definitely I will be glued to the TV, and try and catch as many events as possible.

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