Iconic Asian Games medals - Kamaljeet Kaur Sandhu on her 1970 gold

Kamaljeet Kaur Sandhu on way to winning the 400m gold medal at the 1970 Asian Games. Photo courtesy of Kamaljeet Kaur Sandhu

Kamaljeet Kaur Sandhu (gold, 400m)

1970, Bangkok: First Indian woman to win an individual Asian Games gold

I remember when I saw the India blazer for the first time before the 1970 Asian Games. It was a light-grey-blue colour. I was so proud when I wore it. It was like a current in the air -- the talk of going to the Asian Games. Back in 1970, no Indian woman had ever won an individual gold medal but I never doubted that I was going to win. Most people didn't believe that was possible though.

"Good girls don't run." That was what I was always told in school. When I was studying in Scindia School in Gwalior in the early 1960s, girls were expected to laugh and chat and play games. The only physical activity you were expected to do was to walk from gate to gate and someone had to accompany you when you did that. But I could never just walk. I would always run!

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I was from that first generation that knew what freedom was because I was born in 1948, just a year after Independence. But I still think it was just luck that I was allowed to become an athlete because at that time women still didn't have a role in life outside the family.

My father, Mohinder Singh Kora, was the biggest support in my life. He had been an outstanding hockey player in his college days and had even played with the Olympian Balbir Singh. He was from a military family, an educated family, so he didn't think it was wrong that I was good at sports. I was the second of four sisters but my dad always considered me the son of the family! My mother didn't like me playing as much though. She would say, "Kamaljeet won't learn cooking like this!"

But I always loved to run. When we did have a sports meet in school, I would beat everyone. After I was showing talent at school, my father asked a friend of his, Raja Karni Singh, for advice. At that time, the Lakshmibai National Institute of Physical Education [in Gwalior] had just started, so I was admitted to the hostel there.

Slowly people started to take notice of me. Panjab University in Chandigarh had just started their physical education department and they asked me to join them. I took part in every sport -- basketball, running, anything really. I must have stood out. I think I must have been one of the only girls in Chandigarh who would ride a scooter when I had to go to train. People would actually remark when they saw me driving down the road. But those were different days. Women's eyes were just opening in India. A lot of us girls were stepping out for the first time. Kiran Bedi [who later became the first woman to join the Indian Police Service] was my classmate and I'd like to think the two of us were pioneers in a way.

I still didn't know about specialization. I remember I ran my first 400m race directly in the 1967 National Championships. I still think India's success in the 400m is due to the fact that our first individual gold medal came in that event, but the only reason I ever began running the 400m was because my coach had told me to. The competition was happening in Kapurthala and I went there right after college. I was wearing a skirt and canvas shoes, and didn't know anything about warming up or even kneeling in the starting blocks. When the gun went off, I shot past everyone. Everything was great until 350m -- when I saw stars and collapsed, because I didn't know that you can't just sprint a 400m.

Even though I had lost, everyone was very impressed with my speed. Raja Karni Singh, in turn, asked an Asian Games athlete, Ajmer Singh, to start training me. Ajmer Singh had won a gold at the [1966] Asian Games but was now looking for someone to coach. It was difficult for Ajmer Singh too because he had never trained a woman athlete. Even the National Institute of Sports (NIS) that had been set up [in Patiala] in 1963 didn't have any coach for women and no one really knew how to go about it. We spent one year training. He simply told me to follow whatever he was doing. If he ran, I did that and if he lifted weights, I did that too.

I first got to know I was being seriously considered for the Asian Games when I was called to a short camp at the NIS in the summer of 1969. I don't think the officials liked me because I was always very headstrong. They couldn't deal with it. When we had a trial, they were all watching me like vultures, hoping I would fail. After I won, they made me run again and this time I only improved my timing.

We had a couple of international exposure tournaments before the Asian Games and I won both of them. But even at the Asian Games in Bangkok, no one really expected me to win. I was never worried. I felt bad for whoever would come second. In the final, I was running along with Taiwan's Chi Cheng, who had won a bronze at the 1968 Olympics. When I was warming up, there were whispers: "Oh, you are going to run with Chi Cheng."

During the race, I was in the lead by the 320m mark. Chi was running in the outermost lane but out of the corner of my eye, I saw that she had stumbled and fallen. Even though Chi did not finish, the race was really close. I was not strong in the last 50m and my other competitor, Aviva [Balas] from Israel, had excellent stamina because she was a strong 1500m runner. We both had identical times [57.3 seconds] but I got there just in time. Even before I crossed the finish line, I could see people leaning over the railings in the stands cheering for me.

I didn't realise the magnitude of what had just happened. In my mind I was thinking, "Yeh to hona hi tha (This was sure to happen). Why are these people making such a fuss about this?" It took me time to understand that it was a recognition for the country.

I was completely taken aback by the reception I received from India. I received a telegram from [then prime minster] Indira Gandhi after I won and when I returned to India, I was a state guest for a week. I was taken to personal lunches with the president and cabinet. I was sitting next to J&K maharaja. It was another world. When I went to a bazaar in Lucknow, it seemed the entire city had come to see me. That was the closest I felt to being an idol. You can't compare it to anything. My own father was happy but he didn't show it. Parents were a lot more stingy with their appreciation back then!

After the Asian Games, I was expected to prepare for the 1972 Olympics. I first realized the gulf between us and the world when I travelled to Munich for a programme for Asian athletes. To improve I even trained in the USA, where I also won some races. The [Indian athletics] federation was upset because they wanted me to take part in the national- and state-level competitions. That was like preparing for an MA by writing school exams. Later I found out they hadn't even entered my name for the Olympics. They said I should represent the USA since I was training there. They were simply looking for a way to pull me down. I was finally included at the last minute but I was psychologically very disturbed and I did poorly. That was just how athletes were treated back then.

After that I didn't want to train. Ajmer Singh tried to motivate me but it was just too much of a struggle. There was no follow-up from the government. Just like that, my talent and career was finished.

I only returned to the sport when I got an offer to coach at the NIS in 1975. I wasn't really doing anything, so I took it up. That's when I really started to study about the sport and learned about mechanics and technique and training.

The turning point for women's sport came because of the 1982 Asian Games. We had decided to host the games in 1976 but there was no real preparation for it. Then suddenly someone must have realized that now that holding the games, we might as well win something.

I recall a minister had come to the NIS and asked, "How can we win medals?" He was still expecting that any wins would come from the men. And I said, "Concentrate on the women." I said we had to start women's camps. These had to be long camps, not the few weeks we had in 1969. And so that happened for the first time.

Just a year later in 1979, one of our athletes, Rita Sen, broke the Asian record with a time of 54.9 seconds. She could have done even better but she caught dengue just before the games. In Delhi, we won one gold, six silvers and a bronze. But that was just the start. We have done better than the men at nearly every Asian Games after that.

I'm 70 years old now but when girls like Saina Nehwal and Dipa Karmakar do well at the Olympics, I personally feel connected with them. I know that more women will continue to play sports and win more medals for the country. It feels good that I played a role in that and that could create a path for them to follow.

(As told to Jonathan Selvaraj)