From the publishers of THE HINDU
Vol. 24 :: No. 52 :: Dec. 29, 2001 - Jan. 04, 2002
LEGEND OF INDIAN SPORT - P. T. USHA
A name synonymous with achievementK. P. MOHAN
SUNIL GAVASKAR, Ramanathan Krishnan, Wilson Jones, Milkha Singh, Leslie Claudius and Sailen Manna. All illustrious sports personalities and all of them in The Sportstar list of Indian sports legends so far. Who could be the first woman to join this elite bunch?
Who else but P. T. Usha.
Usha surely is the one sportswoman whom the country as a whole recognises. She is also the one Indian sportswoman whom the sporting world, by and large, associates with this land of Mahatma Gandhi. For, the world remembers her from just one race in the Olympics, the 400-metre hurdles final in Los Angeles in 1984.
Not many fourth-place finishers in Olympics will ever be remembered by anyone. Unless they have achieved something extraordinary. Usha did that, by being the first Indian woman to enter an Olympics final. That she missed a medal by the narrowest of margins will forever be rued, but she had conquered the hearts of millions of Indians and left an indelible impression on the athletics world.
The legend of P. T. Usha was, however, not born in Los Angeles. It was born in Moscow in the 1980 Olympics, at the tender age of 16, though without any notable achievement, evolved through the Asian Games at home in 1982, reached its first bright phase at the 1984 Olympics and then passed through the most productive segment at Jakarta and Seoul in 1985 and 1986 respectively.
By the time she walked away with four gold medals and a silver from the Seoul Asian Games, a grateful nation had identified itself with the long-striding girl from Kerala. Usha's legendary status was truly cemented at Seoul where she stepped in when the country was struggling to avoid humiliation.
From then on, every aspiring girl athlete wanted to follow in the footsteps of P. T. Usha. By then, the foreign media knew how to expand her initials to 'Pilavullakandi Thekkeparambil', no matter that it knew very little about what it meant. Usha's name became synonymous with Indian athletics, nay Indian sports. She had given it an altogether new outlook. "We can also do it" became a more meaningful slogan rather than a mere rhetoric.
Usha was a natural athlete. Coach O. M. Nambiar moulded her into one of the all-time greats of Asian athletics. (She is still eighth in the 400m hurdles and 10th in the 400 metres in the Asian all-time lists.) One cannot recall an athlete at the continental level who could tackle six different events including the two relays so consistently and with that rate of success. Usha did that repeatedly for the sake of the country, most of the time quite willingly.
If she felt betrayed at various times, the officialdom, the coaches, fellow-athletes and the media should share the blame. The farcical trial at Seoul in the 1988 Olympic Games, to finalise the longer relay squad, left her in tears, the snatching away of the flag in the 1995 SAF Games in Madras left her humiliated, the intrigues that led to her omission from the 1600m relay team at Bangkok in 1998 brought the tears out for one last time at an Asian Games.
Emotionally, Usha was so fragile throughout her career that her inner resolve to excel herself on the track came through in sharp contrast. One remembers the time she battled a heel injury prior to the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games amidst media speculation that she was shamming the injury to avoid competition. She wept most of the evenings at the Nehru Stadium in Delhi as she ran out of time in the race to regain her fitness. But Usha came back with a vengeance, in the 1989 ATF meet in Delhi to silence her critics.
She had that approach that separated her from the ordinary athlete. Invariably she would be the last to leave the practice session, though Nambiar might have run her down to death. Many argue, with some amount of justification, that Usha might have been a more successful athlete internationally had she been sent abroad immediately after the Los Angeles Olympics under a longer training-cum-competition programme.
Many critics have also argued that her comeback, which started towards the end of 1993 and lasted up to 1999, was a big mistake. She had, in a fit of disappointment after the 1990 Beijing Asian Games setbacks, announced her retirement, but after marriage and childbirth felt the urge to come back to the track. Husband Sreenivasan played no mean role in that comeback.
Being very sensitive to criticism meant the comeback was going to be painful and at times bitter. Remember the trial in solitary splendour at Lucknow in 1994? Usha always said that she wanted to improve on her records and that was why she made a comeback. She partially accomplished her goals when in 1999 she was credited with a National record of 23.25s for the 200 metres at Lucknow. There were, however, doubts whether the electronic timer had properly functioned in that instance.
The previous year she had come back in a big way in the Asian championships, winning a bronze each in the 200m and 400m apart from contributing to a gold and a silver in the relays. Yet, when the more important Asian Games arrived, she was recovering from a hamstring injury and had to endure the barbs and the intrigues from within the team. There was no Nambiar around to console her.
It will remain a mystery why Nambiar and Usha could not come together again on her comeback. Whatever be the reasons, Usha really missed Nambiar when things went wrong. Nambiar knew her pulse like no one else, having been with her since she was nine. The coaches who succeeded him were in awe of her.
Fellow-athletes were either in awe of her or envious. Towards the end of her career, Usha was practically a loner. This was particularly so in the Bangkok Asiad when she would have needed someone to pour her heart out. Instead she felt a plan was hatched from within the team to keep her out of the relay quartet.
Usha's plea last year to carry out dope tests on National record-setters was also misconstrued by many. However, the very fact that the Amateur Athletic Federation of India (AAFI) has dragged its feet on the ratification issue only goes to prove that Usha has a point.
It is immaterial whether Usha will have just one National record, that in the 400m hurdles, once the federation goes ahead and approves the records set in 2000. What is important is to make sure that the records are 'genuine'. In her long career, there could be no doubt about any of Usha's records because all of them, barring the 1999 mark in 200m, were clocked at major World, Olympic and Asian championships. 'Home-cooked' records never have the same flavour.
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