Still a household name

Making a point...The legendary P. T. Usha at the G.M.C. Balayogi Stadium during the Senior National Inter-State athletics meet in Hyderabad.-V.V. SUBRAHMANYAM

The fact that her fan-following cuts across different sections was evident when P. T. Usha was waiting for her vehicle. Fans swarmed Usha for a photograph with her, writes V. V. Subrahmanyam.

By all means, she was the most popular face in the just-concluded Senior National Inter-State athletics meet at the G.M.C. Balayogi Stadium in Hyderabad. And, for all obvious reasons too as Pilavullakandi Thekkeparambil Usha, nicknamed the ‘Payyoli Express’, set such high standards of excellence which are still difficult for many Indian athletes to even think of, leave alone emulate. Even now she is a household name in Indian athletics.

“We grew up reading about her. And there is no better joy than exchanging pleasantries with such a great athlete like Usha madam,” said double Olympian Satti Geetha, who won the 100m and the 4x100m relay gold in the meet. Another Olympian J. J. Shobha requested Usha to pose for a photograph with her family members. The list was endless right through the four-day event as the Usha aura was all-pervading!

The fact that her fan-following cuts across different sections was also evident when she was waiting for her vehicle. Fans swarmed Usha for a photograph with her.

“Well, there is immense talent in India. But we don’t have a system in place to channelise it or give it the desired exposure over a long period of time,” the Indian athletics great said in an exclusive chat with Sportstar.

“Look at my own case. I started my Academy (Usha School of Athletics in Koyilandy, Kerala) in 2002 and it took 10 long years to produce one athlete (Tintu Luka) who has qualified for the Olympics (2012 London). This is what hurts badly. It is always easy to shower accolades and give away incentives to those who win medals at the higher grade. But it is time to spare a thought as to what makes it to produce a champion. The young athletes need support in the crucial transition phase from juniors to seniors. This is where sponsorship plays a big role,” the four-time Olympian pointed out.

The champion athlete of yesteryear, whose four golds and a silver in the 1986 Seoul Asian Games is one of the fairy tales of Indian sport, is also not too happy with the way the topic of India’s chances in Olympics gets the focus. “Why do we think of an Olympic medal only in the year when the Games are held? I tell you if you are to look for a medal in 2020 Olympics, you have to plan it now. Or else, there is no point in engaging in all these debates,” said Usha.

“No one can deny that we don’t have a system which takes care of the important phases of an athlete trying to be a champion. For instance, competing in the most demanding and high standard meets is mandatory for any Indian athlete to look far beyond the Asian level,” the 47-year-old said.

“Even in Tintu’s case, I strongly believe that she has to compete in at least four big races of real competition before the London Olympics to make a mark there,” Usha said. In fact, even before the Hyderabad Nationals started, she predicted that Tintu would not have any competition.

On India’s prospects, Usha feels that it is good to see 14 Indian athletes qualifying for the London Games. “But, again, we will have to wait and see how they shape up for the biggest sporting spectacle,” she remarked.

Reason? “When I look back, I sincerely believe that if I had a chance to compete in all these Golden Leagues and the Grand Prix events before the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the result would have been different. For it was sheer lack of experience that I did not bend my chest in time,” recalled Usha, who missed a medal by 1/100th of a second in the 400m hurdles. “So, experience in big meets in and outside Asia can make a lot of difference,” said Usha, the first Indian woman athlete to qualify for the finals of an event in the Olympics.

“If you see, many of the athletes who win medals in Olympics do take part in big meets in the run-up to the mega sporting event. They help you not only to look at areas of concern, but also to fine-tune your strong-points. In a way, you can make a critical assessment of where you stand and make corrections quickly. Most importantly, the confidence level will be high. Dreaming big is one thing and winning a medal is another,” she signed off with a big smile.