PT Usha: Born to Run

As IOA president, the legend is back in the spotlight

FOR MOST MILLENNIALS and the generations of younger Indians that followed, PT Usha was a familiar name in general knowledge books and quiz competitions. Until sometime in the middle of this year when she was nominated to the Rajya Sabha and, of course, now when she got elected as president of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), and made history, yet again, as the first woman to hold the post. PT Usha is firmly back in public glare.

Spotted first for her agility and pace by coach OM Nambiar at a sport ceremony in 1977, Kerala-born Usha saw a near meteoric rise over the coming years, winning state-level championships, then national ones, and finally, at the Asian Games. When this author, as a kid, watched her train in the 1980s at Kannur’s Police Maidan, she was already a legend aged 19, having secured a gold in the 400m race and silver in the 200m at the Asian Championships held in Kuwait City in 1983. A year earlier in New Delhi, at the Asian Games, she had won two silvers in the 100m and 200m dash. She earned the epithet, ‘Payyoli Express’. Payyoli is a place in Kozhikode district that Usha hails from.

Usha’s apotheosis as a track and field athlete came two years later—or collectively, over the next two years of 1985 and 1986. The 1984 Olympic Games saw her falter in the 400m hurdles competition when she had to go for a restart following a false start by a fellow competitor. She came fourth, much to the anguish of crores of Indians. There was talk around then that Usha should have gone for an international coach, and not stuck with OM Nambiar.

But at the Asian Championships in Jakarta in 1985, she proved to be irresistible, winning gold in the 100 metres, 200 metres, 400 metres, 400m hurdles and 4x400m relay for India. India came third only in the 4x100m relay. The icing on the cake of her career came in 1986 at the Seoul Asian Games when she won gold for the 2oom, 400m, 400m hurdles and 4x400m relay for India. She settled for silver only in the 100m sprint. The 100m dash brought to the spotlight the story of a great rivalry between Usha and Lydia De Vega of the Philippines, starting from 1982. Usha had raced against Vega 10 times at the Asiad and Asian Championships, losing to her in New Delhi in 1982, Seoul in 1986 and Singapore in 1987, but Usha had beaten her in Jakarta in 1985. A newspaper in Kerala had screamed when Usha beat Vega: ‘Vegayekkal vegam Ushakku (Usha is faster than Vega)’. Incidentally, Vega and Usha shared such a thick friendship as families that Usha’s uncle TV Narayanan, who introduced her to sport, named his daughter Lydia. Vega, meanwhile, passed away in August this year after a long battle with cancer. Usha has told the media how distraught she was to know of Vega’s illness and death.

Interestingly, Usha did well in 1987 and 1989, too, at the Asian Championships, winning seven golds from both events. Even in 1998 in Japan, aged 34, she was part of the relay team that won gold in 100m. No wonder she remains one of India’s most decorated athletes, having been conferred, among others, the Arjuna Award, Padma Shri and several other honorary awards, including doctorates. An alumnus of Providence Women’s College in Kozhikode, Usha married V Srinivasan, who is employed with the Central Industrial Security Force, in 1991. The couple have a son.

The 1964-born Usha had been employed with the Indian Railways as an officer on special duty, starting from 1982, before she rose to become senior deputy general manager, Southern Railway. She had also held the position of dean, Physical Education Department, at Kannur University, Kerala.

Several books have been written about her rise from humble origins to being the poster girl of Indian track and field sport. Some of those books include Golden Girl: The Autobiography of PT UshaOre Oru Usha (One and Only Usha), PT Usha: the Pride of IndiaP.T. Usha – A Case StudyPT Usha – The Sprint Queen, and so on. In the 1980s, a movie starring superstar Mohanlal titled Sarvakalashala (University) had numerous mentions of her, acknowledging her cult figure status both in Kerala and the rest of India. Most importantly, Usha was not one to rest on her laurels. She established a sport academy in 2002 named the Usha School of Athletics to train aspiring female track and field champions.

What a run it has been!

First published in Open

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