The quarter-mile sprint queen who paved the way for women in Indian athletics with her Golden run at the 1970 Asiad :Kamaljeet Kaur

At the 2014 Asian Games, women won a total of 28 medals (five gold, four silver and 19 bronze medals), a significant proportion of the total medals (58) won by India in the quadrennial competition. When India takes part in the Asian Games beginning in about two months time, even more will be expected of the women contingent.

If the contribution of Indian women at the Asian Games has steadily been rising, the breakthrough moment can be considered to be the handiwork of Punjab’s Kamaljeet Kaur, 48 years ago. It was the then 22-year-old Punjab quarter-miler who broke the glass ceiling for women sportspersons by becoming the first Indian woman athlete to win an individual gold at the Asian Games in Bangkok 1970.

Now 70, Kaur is proud of her pathbreaking achievement. “The Bangkok Asian Games is not only a moment for me to cherish forever, but it’s also a landmark for Indian women athletes,” she says.

Long used to being undervalued by society, Kaur recalls the impact her medal had on the culture of the day. “The gold medal in the 400m race changed the perspective of coaches and officials towards women sportspersons and post-1970, everyone started expecting top finishes from women athletes,” she says.

Her journey was far from easy. Although Kaur was always supported by her father, an army officer who was also an accomplished hockey player, she got little understanding from other corners. There was little support in the form of training, when she first attended a national camp in 1969, or international exposure. “I had only about a month’s serious training at the National Camp in Patiala. Before the Bangkok Asian Games, which was my first major multi-discipline sporting event, I had the exposure of competing in two small international meets. The first one was in Malaysia followed by a meet in Thailand and I had won gold in both,”.

The problem she repeats was that no one really knew how to proceed with training a woman athlete. “There was no systematic training even at the NIS, which had just started. Everyone was learning what it was to coach a woman athlete at that time. Even after I won both my international meets, no one expected me to win gold as such things were considered unachievable for Indian women athletes,” she says.

Only Kaur believed in herself. In Bangkok, she would change the minds of others in the best way possible. “I never believed I would not win. I never trailed in the race. I was always in front,” she recalls.  Kaur clocked 57.3 seconds beating Israel’s Aviva Balas in a photo finish.

That performance would serve as a catalyst for women athletes in India. “It broke the mental barrier that Indian women can’t achieve excellence in sports. We have consistently produced women athletes after that,” says Kaur.

Kaur would have a role to play in that too. After competing in the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Kaur would be the driver behind the emergence of a clutch of women athletes in the 1982 Asian Games. “That was a big turning point in lifting the standards of Indian women in sports,” says Kaur.

Kaur was the coach of that squad. She remembers the preparation for those games and the change it made for women’s athletics in India. “Ahead of the Asian Games, a special organising committee was formed under the chairmanship of V. C. Shukla and during a meeting with him, which was held in late 1979 or early 1980, we put together a plan to focus more on women athletes. Going by the standard of women athletes in Asia, there was a lot of scope. So, we decided to grab the opportunity. After the New Delhi Asian Games, there was rise in the graph of Indian women sportspersons,” she says.

The changes she speaks of were revolutionary for their time. “For the first time we had long coaching camps and it really helped. Moreover, the awards including cash incentives, which were given to the medallists played a pivotal role in the current scenario for Indian women in sports. After the 1982 Games, there were more jobs for women sportspersons and it worked out to be an agent for empowering women and motivated others to pursue sports as a career,” she recalls.

Although Kaur did not benefit from any of those improvements in policy, she has no regrets. “I did the best I could with what I had. And ultimately, I was able to win the first individual gold medal by an Indian woman at the Asian Games. That is something no one can take from me,” she says.