Women pioneers of India's Olympic movement

Not one, not two, but four incredible women — Nilima Ghose, Mary D’Souza, Dolly Nazir and Arati Saha — represented India at the 1952 Helsinki Games. They were independent India’s first women representatives at the Olympics.

Dressed in white silk salwar kameez, Indian women competitors Dolly Nazir, Mary D'Souza and Nilima Ghose at the Olympic Village during the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

A glorious picture of Lady Mehri Tata — clad in a Parsi gara saree and wielding a wooden racquet — can keep many causal internet surfers entranced if they visit the Tata group website.

The caption reveals her accomplishments in tennis — international prizes in Kissingen and Baden-Baden in Germany.

Her husband and businessman Sri Dorabji Tata, second chairman of the Tata Group, was the face behind the formation of India’s first Olympic committee and personally financed the first Indian team to the Antwerp Olympics in 1920.

Nilima Ghose finished her 100m sprint in 13.6 seconds and the 80m hurdles in 12.9s. A multifaceted sportswoman, she also won laurels in badminton and discus throw for Bengal.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

 

If you are wondering what that has to do with Lady Meherbai Tata, as she was commonly called in India, the Olympic database throws up Mehri Tata as an Indian athlete for the 1920 and 1924 Olympics but with a caveat — she was a non-starter.

Her name figured in the entry list for the tennis mixed doubles alongside Mohamed Salim. The duo received a bye in the first round but gave a walkover in the second. Could Mehri Tata — a women’s right champion — have been India’s first woman athlete in Olympics? What stopped her from competing? There are no clear answers.

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That honour — of being the first woman from India to compete at the Olympics — went to Nora Polley, who played tennis at the 1924 Paris Olympics. Born in Bengal in 1894, Nora Margaret Fischer spent her early years in Scotland and England. Records suggest she moved back to India in 1921 after marrying Sydney Trepess Polley, a member of the Indian Army. The Anglo-Indian reached the third round in women’s singles in Paris, a feat that remains unmatched 74 years after Independence.

After receiving a first-round bye, Polley defeated Greece’s Lena Valaoritou-Skaramaga in three sets before losing to Spaniard Lilí Alvarez. In the mixed doubles, Polley and Sydney Jacob lost in the second round after receiving a first-round bye. There are no records of her after October 1924 and she passed away in 1988 in an English county.

Dolly Nazir was India’s undisputed swimming queen and the national record holder. She clocked 1:24.6 in the 100m freestyle. In the 200m freestyle, she registered a timing of 3:40.8.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

 

The dawn of Independence in 1947 allowed India to compete under the Tricolour for the first time at the London Olympics in 1948. There, however, were no women in that historic 79-member contingent. But the country didn’t have to wait for long to begin the journey of inclusiveness.

Not one, not two, but four incredible women — Nilima Ghose, Mary D’Souza, Dolly Nazir and Arati Saha — were chosen to represent India at the 1952 Helsinki Games. The quartet — dressed in white silk salwar kameez and blue vests, always smiling — gave wings to the dreams of millions of girls.

The Indian women’s squad had no coach, but a chaperone.

Dolly Nazir, 17, was India’s undisputed swimming queen and the national record holder. She clocked 1:24.6 in the 100m freestyle to finish 41st overall. In the 200m freestyle, she registered a timing of 3:40.8 to finish 32nd.

Arati Saha took 3:40.8 to complete the 200m breaststroke to finish last. Just 12 then, she later became the first Asian woman and third Indian to cross the English Channel in September 1959.

Arati took 16 hours and 20 minutes to cross the English Channel from Cap Griz Nez (France) to Dover (England), a distance of 67.5 kms.

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Coming from a lower-middle class family in Bengal, Arati faced multiple challenges. After beginning her swimming lessons in Hooghly River, she subsequently joined the Central Swimming Club in Calcutta in 1945. But with the club allowing only girls below 12 to train, and most other clubs catering exclusively to the Europeans, she had to go back to training in rivers and ponds (post the Olympics).

Mary D'Souza competing in the 200m at the Helsinki Games in 1952. Mary broke multiple national records and won medals at the Asian Games. She also represented India in hockey at the World Cup.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

 

That didn’t deter her, and the English Channel crossing feat earned her the Padma Shri, and the Indian postal department honoured her with a ₹3 postage stamp in 1999. Google marked her 80th birth anniversary with a doodle in 2020.

Nilima Ghose, as a 17-year-old, became the first woman from independent India to compete in the Olympics as she participated in Heat 1 ahead of Mary D’Souza. She finished her 100m sprint in 13.6 seconds and the 80m hurdles in 12.9s but couldn’t make it to the next round. A multifaceted sportswoman, she also won laurels in badminton and discus throw for Bengal. But she soon migrated to Germany after marriage and that put an end to her short and memorable sports career.

Mary D’Souza, who was competing in sprints, didn’t even have starting blocks and a generous Harrison Dillard from USA decided to gift his set of blocks at the Olympics. She would go on to use the same set of blocks till the end of her career. At the Helsinki Games, she finished her 100m sprint in 13.1 seconds and 200m in 26.3s, not good enough to make it to the next round. She would go on to break multiple national records, win gold, silver, and bronze medals at the Asian Games in 1951 and 1954 and represent India in hockey at the World Cups in 1953 and 1956. It was a stellar career.

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Arati Saha took part in the 200m breaststroke event in Helsinki. She later became the first Asian woman and third Indian to cross the English Channel in September 1959.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

 

Their participation may have driven more women into taking up sport in India, but sadly, it took another five decades before the number of women athletes representing India at the Olympics touched the double-digit mark. The women’s hockey team’s participation in the 1980 Moscow Olympics was a minor aberration in an otherwise negligible tally of Indian women in Olympics.

Fortunes changed with the turn of the century as 21 women were part of the 65-member Indian contingent at the 2000 Sydney Olympics where Karnam Malleswari made history as the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal (bronze in weightlifting). That number has now improved to 56 at the Tokyo Olympics. Incidentally, the last five medals at the Olympics have been won by women (as on August 2).

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