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India's first woman Olympian not forgotten in Aldona

Mary D'Souza, Asia's fastest woman in the 1950s, was one of India's first batch of women Olympians. But while the rest of India seems to have forgotten her, a sleepy little village in Goa celebrates her as an icon.

Indias first woman Olympian not forgotten in Aldona

Mary D'Souza was part of the 1952 Olympics, the first time India sent women to participate.


Dipankar Lahiri

Updated: 19 Jun 2023 10:51 AM GMT

Aldona: India's first woman Olympian Mary D'Souza (1952 Helsinki Olympics) stays up late into the night playing online bridge these days. The 91-year-old also follows sports well enough to know the latest Indian Olympics contingent had 56 women - up from four women in 1952 - and battles ghosts from the past.

Having all the time in the world to look back on her pathbreaking sports career in Athletics and Hockey as she waits for recognition which may never come, she often finds herself thinking about the sleepy little village in Goa where it all started - Quitla in north Goa's Aldona.

"My father left Quitla for Bombay in 1931 as he could not raise his twelve kids on a measly income from agriculture. He became an engine driver for Western Railways. My mother was a housewife. We didn't have much but our parents gave us good food. My mother barely finished making breakfast before she started making lunch, cooking on a coal burning stove," says Mary.

She remembers how the entire extended family, mostly based in Bombay for work, used to descend on Goa during vacations - the caminhao (old Portuguese buses) journeys to reach Aldona, the vast greenery, learning to burn cashew nuts, fishing and returning to Bombay with as many jackfruits, cashews and mangoes they could carry.

"My father was a proud Goan. He could have earned extra money from the Railways if he changed his last name, like many Goans who worked for the British did. He said he would not change his identity for more money. He could really have used that extra money with 12 children. But he preferred to work overtime and died a loyal Goan," she says.

Mary D'Souza's (standing, third from right) family of 12

"The Portuguese were very strict but also very open. Nobody locked their doors in Goa during our childhood. But their property law was different from the British, such that women could inherit land, not just sons. Which is why I am still here," chuckles Marie D'Souza, one of Mary's cousins who was part of these vacation festivities and the only representative from the family who still lives here.

The Portuguese in Goa and the British East India Company in Bombay were both strict rulers, but it is the strictness of their own parents which both the D'Souzas remember best about their formative years.

"Why are you running like a tomboy everywhere, you should exercise by grinding masala and sweeping the floor," Mary's father used to tell her.

One day during World War II, she got the 'pasting of her life' when she sneaked out to play a hockey match when her family had been counting on her to get the family's rations.

Olympics just like sports day…right?

Even though it was clear that Mary was 'into sports' from her early teenage years, the notion of a girl pursuing sports was so alien in the post-War years that the cousins never discussed her feats even though they played together.

"I had NO support from my family. No one ever came to see me run or play. I loved doing it and was good at it so I kept doing it. Whether I won or lost was of no consequence to them. Even when I came back from the Olympics, I wasn't given any accolades or special meal or celebration," she says.

The Indian contingent at the 1952 Olympics

No one wished her when she turned 21 in Helsinki, half a world away from familiar Aldona, but those few days brushing shoulders with the world's best athletes will always remain special to her.

When the 'charming' Jesse Owens came to India three years later, the two struck an easy friendship.

"At the time, there was a lot of discrimination against blacks in America, and in India we had a lot of caste system. So we shared a good bond. His life, like mine was filled will hardship and adversity," Mary says about Owens.

Harrison Dillard, another American athlete who was known as the 'world's fastest man' at the time, gave Mary his starting blocks at the 1952 Games. This could have been the start of a great friendship but Mary soon grew tired of writing and waiting for his letters. "Dillard and I reconnected some years ago. He has now passed away. We used to chat on the phone," Mary says.

Mary D'Souza with Jesse Owens during his visit to India in 1955

But back home, Mary's friendship with the world's best athletes meant nothing. Her sister Rosie and cousin Marie also played sports, having medals to show from Sports Day at school, and to them an Olympic appearance was not much different.

"Javelin, hockey, table tennis - we played everything. But we never thought it was something to talk about. We never knew Mary as an Olympian, we didn't get newspapers back then, we had no idea what she had done was such a big deal. It was only many years later I learnt from a stray conversation that she was India's first woman Olympian," said her cousin Marie.

Mary D'Souza also played hockey for India, making her the first woman from the country to be a double international

Had Mary's 1952 moment happened in present times, governments and private entities would have been falling over each other to sponsor her. But times were so different then that her achievement never found place even at the family table.

When she needed funds to travel to Helsinki, her friends in Bombay organised a dance function to raise the Rs 5000 required for the trip.

Four years later, she was not sent to the 1956 Melbourne Olympics even though she was in prime form and held the 100m and 200m national records, because an important official wanted to send his daughter instead.

"It would have been a great honour to have represented India in two Olympics, and even at the age of 91, I feel distraught about what they did to me and how they cheated me," Mary says.

"I am still a forgotten athlete. I applied twice for the Padma Shree but was overlooked. My life has been a struggle. I wish I could afford to buy an apartment but I am still a tenant and have been harassed by my landlord in Bandra since the 70s," she says.

A hero's welcome in Aldona

The credit for bringing Mary D'Souza back into Goa's consciousness needs to go to two sources. The first is her giant mural across three stories near Geeta Bakery in the heart of capital city Panjim. Painted a few years ago as a series of murals honouring Goa's icons, this hard-to-miss Mary wears the white T-shirt and black shorts of a 1950s runner with 'Goa' emblazoned on her torso, her hair ruffled by the wind as she speeds around the track.

"I am so grateful for their courage and leadership in remembering an old lady like me. They have honoured me while India has forgotten me," Mary says about it.

The other is Felix P.Da Cruz, a Konkani author based in Aldona who wanted to find out more about the local hero and wrote a series of articles on her around a decade ago.

"People's memories are very short. The present generation does not know about these heroes. I wanted to bring to light the stories of Goa's heroes like Mary D'Souza," says Felix.

This series of articles led to Mary being felicitated by the Quitla Sports Club a few years ago - the first time her ancestral village acknowledged her as a hero.

"She took me along with her to the function, where the villagers got to know for the first time that I was related to her - an Olympian. It was a strange feeling to be celebrated right here in the place we have known for so many years," says Mary's cousin Marie.

Mary D'Souza watches over Panjim

Felix has an interesting theory as to why Goa has produced many footballers in the intervening years but not athletes in other sports.

"Surprisingly, cricket used to be played the most at the Quitla Sports Club when it was set up in 1904. Football took over at some point because of its inexpensive nature. Our grounds began to be designed like that - holes were dug in the soil during planting season and then they were levelled. Football was the only sport possible on such grounds," he says.

Biggest regret

Mary's sporting endeavours began with playing hockey with her brothers, but at every step of the way she had to be better than them.

"I was the only girl who played and I had to play better than them to be accepted. Later I played both field hockey and ran track and field for India. I continued to do this as a mother and a wife. I was pregnant five months with my daughter but didn't tell anyone when I played the Nationals for the Railways. It was unheard of in those days. When women who were pregnant were pampered," she says.

For most of her life, Mary found it hard to be taken seriously as a sportsperson. Perhaps because she was much ahead of her time.

But true to the sportsperson she is, her biggest regret is one race when she fell behind on time.

She says, "My biggest regret is not winning the 100m at the 1954 Asian Games in Manila. I can recall my sadness even today. I had the fastest time in Asia of 12.3 secs and I was the favourite to win. But the Sri Lankan athlete next to me flicked the start twice and was disqualified. I got nervous and had a late start and then tightened."

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