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Nilima Ghose: The teenager who helped Indian women get off the blocks in Olympics

Nilima Ghose was only 17 when she became the first Indian woman to compete at an Olympic Games. She participated in the 100m sprint and 80m hurdles at Helsinki 1952.
By Aarish Ansari

The 1952 Olympic Games at Helsinki was a landmark event in Indian sporting history.

Wrestler KD Jadhav bagged a bronze and became the first individual to win an Olympic medal for India. That and the Indian hockey team’s fifth straight Olympic gold headlined India’s performance in Finland, but there was another noteworthy subtext at the Games.

For the first time, Indian women found representation at the quadrennial event as 60 men were accompanied by four women in Helsinki.

Out of the four women, young track and field athlete Nilima Ghose scripted history by becoming the first Indian woman to participate in the Olympics.

Nilima Ghose’s run at the Olympics

Born on June 15, 1935, Nilima Ghose was not even 17 years old when she was named in the Indian contingent for the 1952 Summer Olympics. There she was slated to take part in two events - the 100 metres sprint and 80 metres hurdles.

On July 21, 1952, only 17, Nilima Ghose officially became the first Indian woman to participate in the Olympics when she ran the first heat race of the women’s 100 metres. Although her run of 13.8 seconds could not take her through to the next round, the Indian female track athlete had nevertheless etched her name in history.

Two days later, Nilima Ghose took part in the women’s 80 metres hurdles as the youngest athlete of the event, finishing fifth in her heat with a time of 13.07 seconds.

Accompanying Ghose at the Games was another sprinter Mary D’Souza Sequeira, who competed in the womens’ 100 metres and 200 metres events.

The 20-year-old D’Souza was also unsuccessful in qualifying for the next round but would go on to become one of the fastest runners of Asia in the next few years.

In 2013, Mary D’Souza was honoured with the Dhyan Chand Award - India’s highest award for lifetime achievement in sports.

Along with the two runners, two swimmers Dolly Nazir and Arati Saha also made an appearance at the Helsinki 1952 Olympics.

Although these four women were far from international class, it was nevertheless a landmark moment for India, who had been competing at the Olympics since 1900.

Indian female medallists at the Olympics

Indian sportswomen have come a long way since they first made an appearance at the Olympics. They not only feature at the big-ticket events regularly, but also win laurels for the country.

At the Sydney 2000 Games, Karnam Malleswari went on to create history. She won a bronze medal in women’s weightlifting, becoming the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal.

Saina Nehwal and Mary Kom followed it up with bronze in badminton and boxing, respectively, at the 2012 London Olympics.

Indian women were the only medal winners for the nation at the Rio 2016, with PV Sindhu returning with a silver medal in badminton and Sakshi Malik claiming the bronze in wrestling.

Looking back at the 1952 Games, though Nilima Ghose’s 100-metre dash did not win any medal or break any record, it surely broke the barrier for women’s participation at the highest level in sports.