Tang Pui Wah’s sporting career was a relatively short one. But she left a lasting legacy in the local sporting scene by becoming the first local female athlete to compete in the Olympics in 1952. In doing so — even before Singapore became an independent nation — she would pave the way for generations of women athletes. Just 19 when she competed in the 100m sprint and 80m hurdles at the Helsinki Games, she did not make it past the heats, but won a title that is still remembered today — “The Helsinki Girl”.
She was talent-spotted by her coach Tay Kai Teck when she was studying at Nanyang Girls’ High School. Her height and powerful legs gave her an advantage at the high jump, hurdles and sprints. After winning her first major trophy in a high jump competition organised by the Singapore Chinese Amateur Athletics Federation in 1947, she went on to dominate the high jump, long jump, hurdles and sprint events in Chinese schools over the next three years.
In 1949, she began to impress outside Singapore, first breaking the China Olympic record in the 100m hurdles, then setting an All China record of 13.3sec in the hurdles the following year. In 1951, at the Malayan Amateur Athletic Association sports meet, she swept the field with three gold medals in the 80m hurdles, 100-yard sprint and 220-yard sprint. She also represented Singapore in the 80m hurdles at the first Asian Games in New Delhi. A few years later, the Helsinki Girl finally won an international medal — a bronze in the 80m hurdles at the 1954 Asian Games in Manila. She retired two years later.
*Profile from Rings of Stars and Crescent – 70 Years of the Olympic Movement in Singapore by Peh Shing Huei.