Saturday, August 5, 2000
M A I N   F E A T U R E


The ‘Payyoli Express’ will run no more. Twentythree years of almost non-stop chugging has finally taken its toll. But it’s not yet time to cast away the Payyoli Express to the yards. There’s still a lot of steam left in the Express for it to rest on its laurels, writes M.S. Unnikrishnan

PILAVULLAKANDI THEKKEPARAMBIL USHA has bid adieu to competitive athletics, eight years after her second coming. But she will not sever her links with the sport that has given her everything— money, fame, awards and rewards. She has ambitious plans to give back something to the sport which has made her the golden girl of Indian athletics.

"I am not fed up of sports. I am still confident of doing well", said the 36-year-old Usha while announcing her retirement from the track on July 25. "Athletics has been my life, and it will continue to be so in the years to come, in some form or the other", she elaborated.

The prestigious Rs 50-crore Usha School of Athletics, being set up at Quilandy, 12 km from her house at Payyoli in Kerala, will take concrete shape a few months from now. This will be the beginning of another fruitful era in Usha’s life.

For 23 years, it was all sweat and toil for this unassuming lass. She faced the vicissitudes of life with great tenacity and fortitude to eventually scale the pinnacle of glory, to be crowned the "Golden Girl" of Asia.

"It’s a painful decision, but a well-thought-out one. Two decades is a long time, and as I go, I have a bag of mixed emotions — some great moments, some bitter experiences", Usha added.

Born on May 20, 1964, at Koothali in Payyoli, Usha’s is a saga of triumph and tragedy, elation and humiliation. The nondescript daughter of a cloth merchant from Payyoli emblazoned a glorious trail on the athletic tracks of Asia.


The Usha saga began in 1978, when, as a pony-tailed 13-year-old, she caught the national spotlight by winning three gold medals in the Inter-State Athletic Meet in Quilon (Kerala). It marked the beginning of a glorious era in Indian athletics.

At the age of 15, Usha became well-known in the country, when her four-gold feat in her very first international outing at the Qaide-Azam Invitation Meet in Karachi (Pakistan) in 1980, earned her a berth in the Indian contingent for the Moscow Olympic Games, making her one of the youngest-ever athletes to participate in Olympics.

Although Usha created no ripples in the Moscow Games, as she had bowed out of the 100m heats, it was a great learning experience for her. The magnitude of the Olympic climate, the diehard competitive spirit, the higher standards of international athletes, and the need to adapt to varying world conditions had all left a deep impact on her mind. Usha came back a better sportsperson.

It took four months after Moscow for Usha to get back to her training again. Usha and her now famous personal coach, O Madhavan Nambiar in toe, had set their eyes on the ninth Asian Games, to be held in Delhi in 1982. They returned to the beaches of Payyoli, a few kilometres away from the Trikkottur upper primary school — where Usha had cut her teeth, and a great master, E Balakrishnan Nair, had spotted her talent — to resume training, away from the glare of spotlight.

Nambiar had "spotted" Usha at the Sports Hostel in Cannore, and instinctively knew that he had hit a jackpot in her.Ironically, it was due to some of Nambiar’s utterances and doings that Usha had to face a lot of problems and criticism later in her career. But that is another story.

As the Asian Games were nearing, Usha was slowly and surely consolidating her position as the indisputable sprint queen of India, by winning the 100 and 200 m gold in the National Inter-State Meet at the Kanteevaram Stadium in Bangalore. But there was also that heart-breaking experience when she collapsed on the track, after anchoring the 4x400m Kerala relay team with incredible speed, and had to be carried off the field on a stretcher.

At the next meet in Calicut University, Usha’s health problem continued to dog her, forcing her to skip the National Open Meet in Delhi. She was suspected to be having cardiac problems, and Calicut Medical College referred her to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Delhi, for further check-up. Though the doctors found her normal, she yet again collapsed on the track, this time at the coaching camp in NIS Patiala while preparing for the Asian Track and Field Meet in Tokyo. She was once again rushed to AIIMS, as the 17-year-old’s parents and coach watched in stunned disbelief.

She was asked to go abroad for expert opinion, but all through, Usha was determined to participate in the Delhi Asiad, though she had to tearfully skip the ATF meet in Tokyo.

Usha did not go abroad for treatment for want of funds. But after two months of treatment under the care of well-known cardiologist, Dr M S Valiathan, at the Thiruvananthapuram medical college, Usha was back to the national camp at Hyderabad, and did well at the National Open Meet in Lucknow, winning the 100m by breaking a seven-year-old national record. She kept doing well in various meets, and was now ready for the Asian Games. But on the eve of the Asiad at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Delhi, Usha was stricken with malaria, and was not fully fit when she took the field in the 100m, in which she was beaten to the second place by the glamour girl from Philippines, Lydia de Vega.

With Lydia pulling out of the 200m race with a muscle strain, the home fans had hoped that Usha would pull off the gold this time, but once again she was pipped at the post by Hiromi Isozaki of Japan. Usha, who was ahead till 15 m from the tape, was stunned into tears. The crowd was stunned too.

But what was forgotten in the confusion was that an Indian girl had won two silver medals in an Asiad, for the second time. The only other woman to achieve this feat was Geeta Zutshi. Usha wept uncontrollably as she was being presented the silver medals. In contrast, her arch rival, M D Valsamma, had won the gold in the 400m hurdles. Valsamma was given Rs 1 lakh by the Kerala Government for her feat. Even Omana Kumari, who was part of the women’s hockey team which lifted the gold was given a cheque for Rs 1 lakh, while Usha got only Rs 50,000. Valsamma also received the Arjuna Award and Padmashree for her golden feat, while Usha got nothing.

A sulking Usha and Nambiar chalked out their future strategy very carefully, and a major decision was taken to make Usha run in the 400m hurdles. This created a lot of heartburn between Usha and Valsamma and their coaches Nambiar and Kannan Kutty, respectively. But Nambiar was determined. He had calculated that with the countries of the Socialist Block keeping away from the Los Angeles Olympic Games in 1984, in retaliation for the American boycott of the Moscow Olympic Games, Usha stood an excellent chance of striking a medal in the 400m hurdles.

That Usha missed a bronze at Los Angeles by one- hundredth of a second is painful history now. But Nambiar had made his point, and Usha never looked back. The 55.42 seconds she clocked at Los Angeles has stood the test of time to remain in her name as a national record, while all her other records have fallen to others at obscure venues like Kieve, Nagercoil and Bangalore, though they are yet to be ratified by the Amateur Athletic Federation of India (AAFI).

Though Usha missed a medal at Los Angeles, she returned home as the new athletic icon on the Indian horizon, following in the footsteps of great sportsmen like Milkha Singh, Gurbachan Singh Randhawa, Sri Ram Singh and Kanwaljit Singh Sandhu. It was the beginning of a glorious phase in Usha’s career, and she finally struck the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow when she won four golds and one silver at the Seoul Asian Games in 1986, while others had drawn a blank.

The country heaved a collective sigh of relief as Usha went on her golden streak, after 10 days of acute medal drought. Suddenly, Usha became the national mantra, and her name was on everyone’s lips. For once, other sports icons,particularly the cricket stars, had to take a backseat.

A year earlier, in the ATF meet in Jakarta, Usha’s incredible tally was a haul of five golds and a bronze. "Usha is world class", declared the legendary hurdler Edwin Moses.

"I am delighted that such a simple, unassuming girl has dislodged cricket from the headlines. She is my favourite", noted Sunil Gavaskar.

Usha had put the fear of God in the minds of her rivals after her Seoul triumph. "She is a great athlete. I am never confident of winning a race when she is in the next lane", Lydia de Vega had said. But the Seoul success also created countless enemies for Usha.

Her trips to the Gulf countries, dominated by expatriate Malayalee workers, came in for a lot of flak as she and Nambiar had allegedly went on a money collection spree, by cashing in on her goodwill and popularity. In those days, "P T Usha, the President of India, and the Prime Minister" was the order of importance in Kerala.

But Usha’s good work on the track silenced her critics, albeit temporarily, as she went on to collect three golds and two silvers in the ATF meet in Singapore in 1987. Though Usha had to face a lot of humiliation on the eve of the Seoul Olympic Games, as she was even made to run a qualifying race for the relay team in Seoul (Usha was out in the 400m heats), she again bounced back with renewed vigour in the ATF Meet at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Delhi in 1989 by bagging four golds and two silvers. But Usha was never the same thereafter.

Dogged by a nagging knee injury, Usha found the going tough, and was also drifting away from her coach and mentor Nambiar, as he had reportedly started demanding a greater share of the pie for himself.

By the time the 1990 Beijing Asiad came around, Usha was clearly on the decline. All sorts of humiliation was heaped upon her, and she was even forced to run a trial event all alone at Lucknow as no other athlete was willing to give her company. The lone silver she won at Beijing did not satisfy the Indian team management, and Usha was kept out of the relay team at the last moment.

On her return, a dejected Usha announced her retirement from athletics. She went into hibernation for two years, till she was forced to return to track by the AAFI and the SAI, seeing the poverty of talent at the National level. Though Usha skipped the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, she was never the same in her second coming. She got just a silver in relay in the Hiroshima Asiad and nothing at Bangkok, though she had won a gold and silver, and two bronze medals in the ATF meet in Fukuoka (Japan) in 1998, before the Asiad.

By now the training methods of the Indian athletes had also undergone a sea change, and Usha was not prepared to "boost" her performance at this stage of her career. A votary of stringent dope testing, Usha was not comfortable with the foreign coaches who asked her to take some strange injections for her knee problem. Usha collapsed on the track at the national meet in Calcutta prior to the Bangkok Asiad, was attributed to the "booster" dose she was forced to take.

Usha’s recent outspoken statements about the genuineness of the spate of national records being set of late, has even started a national debate about the necessity of having stringent dope testing methods. But her views seem to be a voice in the wilderness. These days a medal is all that matters, never mind the means adopted to reach the end. Usha always had a clean track-record. She is one of a kind.

The key to her success has been hard work, resilience, strength of character and courage.


AN intense media war and rivalry ensued between P.T.Usha and Valsamma and their coaches. This was fuelled by two powerful newspaper groups of Kerala, which backed their favourites to the hilt with a very partisan approach. Traditionally, athletes from Kerala came from the lower middle class Christian community, particularly from the central Kerala belt of Kottayam, Palai, Idukki and Alleppy. The advent of a Hindu girl on the scene, that too from the Malabar region, was hard to stomach for these "traditionalists".

Though Usha belongs to the backward Thiyya-Ezavha community— which has a very powerful political presence, and being traditional toddy-tappers, controls 80 per cent of the liquor trade in Kerala— she had endeared herself to all in the state with her stellar deeds, and humble demeanour.

Interestingly, Valsamma’s coach Kutty belonged to the same caste as Usha, while Usha’s coach belonged to the upper caste Nambiar community. The rivalry reached a crescendo after Usha narrowly missed a medal at Los Angeles, and a ‘calculated calumny campaign’ was started against her. So much so that after Usha’s unprecedented gold harvest in the Seoul Asiad in 1986, she found the going tough in her own state.

But awards and rewards poured in Usha’s direction, and the state government showered her with luxury cars, a beautiful bungalow, and other material and honorific bounties. Roads and streets were named after her, and the state was dotted with Usha’s name.

But it all came with sheer grit and hard work, and at a price too. An occasional fish eater, Usha had to become a non-vegetarian to increase her stamina and fitness levels.

She would get up at 5.30 am, and after light tea and an egg, practice from 6 am to 10.30 a m. Breakfast would include milk, banana, dosa, idli, poori or chappati, and chana. Lunch at 12.30 p m would include chicken, rice, seasonal vegetables and achar, though surprisingly, she detested sambar or any other preparation containing coriander leaves. An egg and a cup of tea would precede her evening practice session from 4 to 6 p m. Dinner at 8.30 would include chicken, rice, curry and achar. Whenever she was in Delhi, she would dine only at the Kerala House where she would be specially provided with her favourite dishes, through a special order of the Kerala Government. She also had a suite to herself at the Nehru Stadium — a luxury enjoyed by no other athlete in India.

It is surprising that this golden girl has not yet been considered for the prestigious Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award. She says she is waiting....

— M.S.U.


IT WILL BE NO exaggeration to state that a legend like P.T. Usha comes on the Indian athletic firmament as rarely as the Halley’s Comet. Usha’s fondness for another legend, American basketball icon, Michael Jordan, was well known. Sitting cross -legged in front of the NIS women’s hostel in Patiala, she would often quote the famous American writer, Frank Deford, who once wrote " What is so amazing is that he has achieved a certain mythology without the benefit of our fevered imagination. Everything he has done is on record— none of it has been dreamt or exaggerated". Obviously, Deford was talking of Michael Jordan, but the words could easily have been describing P.T.. Usha.

Space constraints do not allow for her innumerable achievements on the track to be recounted. People at the NIS, where Usha spent a considerable amount of time attending numerous national camps, remember her as a tall, lithe, soft-spoken and articulate person. She was a genius, a celebrity, but unlike other sportspersons who have achieved the status of demi-gods and are prone to throwing tantrums, Usha, despite being a legend, never had an inflated ego. She was aware of this and used to tell stories of some of her contemporaries who "were in the habit of booking two seats in the aeroplane- one for themselves and one for their egos".

Now that P.T.Usha’s three, long-standing records have been shattered, she is asking the AAFI to dope test all the three athletes who bettered her records. Usha is disturbed because her achievements have been obliterated in irrelevant meets, something that she finds simply absurd. What the lady wants is that a proper investigation should be conducted into whether the norms governing ratification were strictly followed or not, be it Bangalore, Nagercoil or even Kiev (the venues where her marks were improved upon).

It is not that Usha didn’t know that a day would come when her records would also be broken. She knew that in this ‘dope-infested world of athletics’, her records were bound to fall. She once told this reporter, "Jesse Owens is remembered not for records,which have been erased from the books long ago, but for the momentous effort under trying circumstances in the 1936 Olympiad, circumstances that were orchestrated by Adolf Hitler ".

There is a price to be paid for being a celebrity. But despite being a celebrity, things were different for Usha at the NIS. She would partake food in the crowded NIS mess, freely mingling with fellow athletes.

P.T.Usha, the humble girl from Payyoli, will go down in history as one of the most popular athletes.

— Ravi Dhaliwal