India’s Golden Girl PT Usha recently created a small stir during the Tokyo Olympics soon after Neeraj Chopra’s historic win. She tweeted
The tweet caused confusion among the uninitiated. Was Neeraj her son? Was she married to a Chopra?
It was then that I realized the extent to which Usha had receded from the public eye over the years. She was still a legend, but not many outside the sports field knew where she was or what she was doing. Few had even heard of her sports academy, Usha School of Athletics in Balussery, Kerala. And not many knew that she was married to Kabbadi player V. Sreenivasan and had a son Vignesh Ujjwal, who was a doctor specializing in sports medicine. It took some time for Twitterati to realize that she was using son as an affectionate term for the gold medal winner.
I met Usha for the first time in 1986, soon after she had won a clutch of gold medals at the Seoul Asiad. That was when she was dubbed the “Golden Girl”. I had been assigned to do a cover story for Femina and this was how I started it.
“Usha yawned. The gold medals which had saved India from the brink of disaster at the Seoul Asiad dangled in her listless grip. The gold shoe, symbol of the international recognition her sporting brilliance had received, lay unnoticed in a corner of the hotel bed.”
Usha was 22 years old. She had already won international accolades. The previous day she had received a tumultuous welcome when she landed in Thiruvananthapuram. She had won four golds and a silver in Seoul. Then Chief Minister K. Karunakaran had announced a cash award of ₹3 lakhs and a standard car valued at ₹2.5 lakhs in recognition of her spectacular win. There was a gala award ceremony and the governor was holding a reception for her. Usha had even received a makeover as she had to attend so many events.
Yet none of this seemed to have affected her. She was still the quintessential village girl from Payyoli who had reluctantly changed out of her comfy clothes for the photoshoot. Her idea of celebration was to go to a newly released Malayalam film with her school-going brother, Pradeep.
Usha came from a family of seven. Her father owned a small clothes shop in Payyoli. “I was very small when I joined the sports academy,” she told me. “Just like this fellow Pradeep. Now I am 169 cms tall and I weigh 59kg.” Over the years she blossomed into a confident, full-fledged athlete.
Sports has never been a paying profession for the regular athletes. A sportsperson either has to have another job for sustenance or do outstandingly well in order to garner sponsorships. When Usha started off as a lanky teenager, she had no sponsors. Her state scholarship took care of her food, fees and stay at the sports school. But it never bothered her.
O.M. Nambiar, her coach and mentor told me that right from the start she was a very disciplined and focused girl whose only goal was to run well and win. This was a rare trait he said because most young people who took up sports only used it as a kind of stepping stone to attain something else. “They might want admission to some medical or engineering college on a sports quota. Or get a government job. Or fix up a marriage. I’ve seen very few girls who feel they must work hard and bring glory to the country. Usha is an exception.”
Usha was amused when I spoke to her about it. “Until now I’ve never bothered about the incentives. I only run to win the medal,” she said. She was now getting some cash awards every time she came home with medals. She was even given a house in Payyoli after she won five gold medals at the 6th Asian Track and Field Championship in Jakarta in 1985 and in the process set a record for most gold medals won at a single event in the history of the championships.
Usha came from a middle-class background. She grew up on basically a vegetarian diet with fish thrown in. She said she now ate only food that she liked and what she considered to be a “rich” diet consisting of rice, milk, fruit, eggs and badam (nuts) and some meat. Since Usha was very particular about rice and found it pasty in Seoul, her coach had rice flown in from Kerala and got it cooked at the Indian Embassy.
One of Usha’s greatest dreams then was to have a track in Kerala. She could only do seasonal training at her hometown. “I can do sand running and slope climbing, but all our athletes need a track to practice on,” she said. She spoke of the difficulties of living out of suitcases in Delhi or Patiala, eating strange food and being unable to communicate because of the language problem.
The 1980s were her most fruitful years when she set and often broke her own records. Her haul of medals spoke for itself. In the late1980s, however, Usha went through a bad patch. Her timings dropped. She was still the fastest 400-metres hurdler in Asia, but she and her coach were accused of not working hard enough on improving her timing. She was accused of feigning injuries to drop out of important meets. Her coach Nambiar placed all the blame on sports authorities who he said had not arranged for her to have longer periods of training abroad where she could bring out her best by competing with athletes of international standing.
But many pointed out that Usha had consistently refused to change her coach or even compete in international events if her coach was not allowed. Usha was in her mid-20s when I interviewed her for Femina while she was training in Bengaluru. I got the feeling she had never been allowed to grow up or take independent decisions. Was it too late for her to get out of her mentor’s clutches, I wondered. And if she did, would she be able to navigate the venomously tricky path to the national arena on her own? For there were many who were jealous of her special place. It was obvious she was most comfortable with the man who had nurtured her all these years and who spoke her own language. But if she continued to fail would she get sponsors?
By 1990, the Usha-Nambiar partnership had come to an end. In 1991, she got married to Sreenivasan. She continued to train and run. She took part in the relay race team at a couple of international events. At the 1998 Asian Athletics Championship, her team won the gold medal and set a national record.
Usha moved on. Her son Vignesh was growing up. He was not going to become a sports person as she had hoped. Instead, he studied medicine and specialized in sports medicine. She set up her own all-girls sports academy and got involved in other aspects of sports training and administration.
Today Usha is a content woman. She may not be in the limelight, but her name is synonymous with running and athletics. Like the legendary Milkha Singh, she has carved a place for herself in the Indian sports galaxy.
The secret of her success, she said, was her dogged persistence. To try, try and try again. “I have overcome,” she told a reporter recently, “and so can millions of athletes in this country. I am proud that I have done something for India, but nothing can give me greater satisfaction than giving my all…all the time.”
Gita Aravamudan is an independent journalist and author based in Bengaluru. In this fortnightly column, she examines the links between current news and events and headlines of the past, drawing on her 50-plus years of experience in the field.
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