CHENNAI: In October 2009, there was an episode that reflected the plight Indian athletes often have to endure after retirement. P T Usha, the legendary sprinter, while narrating her ordeal, broke down in front of reporters. The story went like this. She reached the airport and was made to wait. Later, she was shunted between Sports Authority of India hostels and finally, when she was given accommodation, she was asked to share a room with other players.
Usha quietly refused the offer and checked into a hotel close to the stadium. “How can you expect sportspersons to win medals when a person like me is treated this way?,” she had asked then. Irony was that the same SAI hostel, according to her, had her photograph framed on its wall. The incident perhaps is deeply etched on her mind.
When Usha takes over as the Indian Olympic Association president after the election process gets over on December 10, she would want to avoid a similar predicament, not just for retired athletes but also for those who are still active — Olympians to grassroots. Her agony was not for being given a shared accommodation, but for the shabby treatment meted out to an athlete of her stature. This also showed that the organisers or the persons involved either did not respect her achievements or did not care.
Now, as a sports administrator, the roles will be reversed. All eyes will be on her to bring sanity to the country’s most powerful sports organisation (other than the BCCI, of course).
A somebody. An athlete. A coach. And now a sports administrator. Of course, a legend too! In the race of life, the progression seems natural, just like her career in running. Until the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, she had barely run 400 m hurdles. In fact, Usha was not even a name associated with athletics. She had participated in the Moscow Olympics at the age of 16, the youngest Indian athlete at that time.
It was not until when she blazed the track and missed the bronze by a hundredth of a second, that the country woke up and took notice of this lanky athlete from Kerala, coached by OM Nambiar. The two had shared a unique bonding from the day he picked her up during a school meet in Kannur way back in 1977. From dusty and bald grounds to cinder and synthetic tracks, Usha started to bloom.
Athletics then was not a vocation pursued by many, and for women, it was a rarity. Coming from a modest background, Usha took up the sport by chance. Like she used to say, before athletics, the only thing she knew was running over fences. Seeing her talent, she was introduced to the sport at a very young age before Nambiar took her under his wings.
She confessed many times that she lacked experience and exposure. On several occasions she had said Indians don’t lack talent but scientific approach and exposure (which, of late, is much better). She started competing in 400m hurdles late. For Usha, Los Angeles was shattering. And she was not alone in her tears. Nawal el Moutawakel, who won the gold in the event summed it up succinctly during an awards function in 2011, “I cried because I wanted both of us to be on the podium and because we come from countries where we don’t have Olympic medallists who are women.”
Missing the Olympic bronze was Usha’s greatest regret. But there is another one she missed. The Commonwealth Games. She never ran in a CWG as the Indian government decided to pull out due to apartheid in 1986 when she was at the peak of her career.
After retiring in 2000, she wanted to launch an academy to give back to the sport. She harboured dreams of producing Olympic medallists. She had told this reporter that a medal for her ward would erase those painful memories of the 1984 Olympics.
Usha is one of the greatest athletes India has ever produced. And the moniker she holds — Payyoli Express — symbolises all things fast and tenacious. She retired after almost 18 years with a handful of records.Some of Usha’s records still stand. After taking over as IOA chief, she will be under constant scrutiny, especially her administrative acumen. Here’s hoping she would excel it as well.