On the state of Indian athletics, PT Usha nicknamed as ‘Payyoli Express’ has rightly said in her autobiography The Golden Girl, “After many years of experience in athletics, I am convinced that what we lack in India is not talent, but the basic, modern and scientific facilities. If we train our young Indian sports talents, nothing—not even the Olympic medal— is unachievable. Everyone thinks that bagging an Olympic medal is a difficult task. It is not. I would have certainly made it in the Los Angeles Olympics if I had a little more exposure in the 400-metre hurdles. Considering my limited exposure, I did well as I had participated only in two races before I went to Los Angeles. It was lack of experience in the 400- metre hurdles that cost me the gold medal. If India goes for a real, systematic and scientific approach, I am sure my country has a great athletic future.”
She is remembered as the queen of Indian track and field, who ruled supreme in Indian athletics because of her speed on the racetrack! She made a place for herself in the world athletics and became an icon for Indian women athletes. In Kerala, the streets and newborn babies are named after her.
This sports legend, a symbol of perseverance in Indian sports, had to go through several trials and tribulations in life. Born as PilavullakandiThekkeparambil Usha on June 27, 1964 at Payyoli, a small village in Kerala—The God’s own country, her talent for sport was noticed by her teacher Balakrishnan. As a child Usha showed an early aptitude for sports. This won her a scholarship of Rs 250 from the Kerala government. In 1976, the Kerala State government started a sports school for women and she was chosen to represent her district.
It was OM Nambiar, a sports coach, who first observed her keenly in the National School Games in 1979 and decided to coach her in athletics. It was a time when athletics was very much a male sport and track-suited women a rarity. She made her international debut at the Moscow Olympics in 1980 though she shone for the first time in the Delhi Asiad in 1982 by winning silver medals in 100-meter and 200-meter events. In 1983, she won a gold medal in the 400-meter even to set up a new Asian record at the Asian Track and Field Meet in Kuwait. In the 1984 Olympiads at Los Angeles, she narrowly missed an Olympic medal. She recorded 55.42 seconds in the race-still an Indian record—but lost in the photo-finish. She later won five gold medals and one bronze in 1985 at the Jakarta Asian Athletic Meet and was declared the greatest women athlete. In 1986 at the Tenth Asian Games at Seoul, she notched up four gold medals and one silver medal besides earning the title of ‘Asia’s Sprint Queen’. The last major event in which she participated was the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. She became the first Indian women to reach the final of an Olympics event. The Seoul Olympics in 1988 proved a disappointment for her as also the country because she suffered from a heel injury. She however forced herself to run but was unable to make the finals in her best events. Not to be disheartened, she won four gold and two silver medals at the Asian Track Federation meet held subsequently in Delhi in 1989.
PT Usha gathered 33 medals including 13 gold in Asian Games and Asian Championships. She has won a total of 102 medals by participating in national and international meets during her career. She is a living example for all those who look down upon a girl child and go to the extent of killing them even before they have seen the light of the day.
In 1991, she married V.Srinivasan. Marriage however did not prevent her from practicing for international athletics. She returned in 1994 to participate in the 200-metre and 400-metre events at the Asian Track Federation Meet in Japan in 1999. She won bronze medals in both the events. Silencing her critics, at the age of 34, she set up a new national record in the 200 meters, improving upon her own previous records.
PT Usha is recipient of the Arjuna Award for Sportspersons in 1983, the Padma Shri in 1985 and was adjudged the best sportswoman of the century by the Indian Olympics Association in 2000. Currently she is employed as an officer in the Southern Railways. She retired from active sports in 2000 with a promise to groom bright young talents in her school for athletes, known as ‘Usha School of Athletics’ at Koyilandi, near Kozhikode in Kerala. Here she trains children from all over the country and who belong to the 10-12 age-group.
— Aniket Raja