O.M. Nambiar: One of a kind

As a coach, O. M. Nambiar drew lessons from his own experience as a sprinter with the Indian Air Force and had an eye to spot talent and nurture them to become quality athletes.

Coach par excellence: O. M. Nambiar was one of the first recipients of the Dronacharya Award.   -  The Hindu photo library

With the passing away of the legendary coach, O. M. Nambiar, 89, last month, Indian athletics has been left poorer with a void that would be hard to fill. A person with a pleasant and cheerful demeanour, Nambiar charted the destiny of the sport in the country, travelling paths hitherto unexplored and rose to prominence as the guiding light of P. T. Usha, arguably the greatest athlete India has ever produced.

As a coach, he drew lessons from his own experience as a sprinter with the Indian Air Force and had an eye to spot talent and nurture them to become quality athletes. It was a chance meeting with the late Godavarma Raja, the doyen of Kerala sport, which brought Nambiar back to his home State soon after completing the diploma course at the National Institute of Sports, Patiala.

It was in 1970 and though the founding President of the Kerala State Sports Council passed away soon thereafter, Nambiar was picked as the coach with the task of moulding the batch of trainees selected into the newly established Sports Division in Kannur. It was here that Nambiar found out that among his new wards there was a raw cut diamond which, if polished carefully, could be a rare gem in later years.

Recalling his first impression on Usha, Nambiar, years later would go on to say that what impressed him the most about his famous disciple was the manner in which she walked, fast and upright. Much to the delight of the coach, Usha was willing to take up the load right from those earlier days and finish the same even if she was dead tired by the end of the day. Again, she would be back next morning, willing to undergo the tortuous training regime without any complaint.

Perfect duo: Coach Nambiar with his favourite disciple, P. T. Usha, nicknamed the Payyoli Express.   -  The Hindu photo library


Nambiar had this habit of gifting toffees to his athletes, who underwent the warm up sessions without making mistakes. And not so surprisingly, it was Usha who got the most toffees, which was a source of great inspiration for her during those days. Under Nambiar’s tutelage, it was only a matter of time before Usha burst onto the National scene, initially at the junior and schools levels, before turning Olympian at 16, when she was selected to the Indian team for Moscow 1980..

The association between the guru and the disciple continued when Usha moved out of school and entered college. The two sprint silvers at the 1982 Asian Games in New Delhi that Usha won did not satisfy her coach, who soon shifted her to the 400m. Usha’s stride length and pattern and basic speed was what prompted Nambiar to make his move, which soon turned to be rewarding in the Asian championships (then named as the Asian Track and Field meet) as she struck gold in Kuwait City.



Though this move was widely acknowledged, Nambiar’s masterstroke was forcing Usha to take up hurdling and turn her attention to the 400m hurdles, which was being introduced as a medal event, months before Los Angeles 1984. That Usha almost got India’s first ever athletics medal at the Olympic Games but for a mere crane of the neck is a story which has been recounted often ever since. It was equally disappointing for Nambiar to be a witness to the sad episode, but he soon displayed the iron in the man as he helped Usha to be Asia’s best ever athlete in subsequent years.

Nambiar was not only the personal coach of Usha, but a fatherly figure who helped the Payyoli Express to realise her true potential donning many caps, such as her dietician, nutritionist and recovery expert and even helping her to handle the media with rare elan. To fellow coaches too, he was a role model, never restraining himself to help them in time of need.

That the Nambiar-Usha duo helped young hopefuls to dream big and take up athletics seriously would be an understatement. Nambiar, who was among the first batch of recipients of the Dronacharya Award, was often unfairly criticised for his failure to unearth another Usha through the rest of his career. Soon after resigning from the Sports Council in 1990, he joined the Sports Authority of India and was responsible in bringing up many athletes to the national limelight, like Beena Augustine and R. Sukumari, to name a few.

But to him, Usha would always remain his favourite athlete, often pointing out the sacrifices that she undertook in the journey to attain perfection. Like Usha, Nambiar, truth to tell, was also one of kind. He will be greatly missed.