Interview: P T Usha

Athletes like P T Usha, Milkha Singh, and Anju Bobby George have inspired the hope, and the belief that Indian athletes can win the world. They have earned medals at the Asian and Commonwealth levels, but have always fell short at the highest stage. Milkha Singh (in 1960) and P T Usha (in 1984) missed Olympic medals by a whisker. Anju Bobby George is the only one who has occupied podium at a world level meet. She won bronze medal in long jump at the World Athletics Championships in 2003. This is as far as we’ve reached, despite all the hopes and speculations.

The current athletes certainly have more exposure and better facilities than there were in the 60’s or the 80’s. Then, why is it that the nation has not gone beyond the achievements of Milkha Singh or P T Usha. What is it that they had back then which fueled them to go beyond expectations.

In this interview, P T Usha tells me about the days she used to train relentlessly, almost obsessively – “I was mentally very strong and I was prepared for the pain. I did everything my coach told me without bothering about my aching body or a lack of decent tracks. In those days we had to go to Patiala or Delhi to practice on synthetic track. Back home, I used to run on footpaths, along train tracks, almost anywhere. The athletes these days don’t have that kind of endurance. They give-up if you give them a strenuous workout.”

Full Text of the article, published in Russia and India Report, Aug 2013

Back in India after the IAAF World Athletics Championships in Moscow, the Indian iconic athlete draws many positives from Russia’s sports infrastructure even as she criticizes the administrative and logistics lacks in the organization of the event.

P T Usha debuted in the Olympics in 1980 in Moscow. More than three decades later she revisited the city for the IAAF World Athletics Championships. This time it was in her position as the coach of Tintu Luka who ran with the Indian women’s 4X400 m relay team. Luka, Nirmala Sheoran, An Mariam Jose, and M.R. Poovamma failed to qualify for the final round, clocking a below-par 3:38.81s, and finished 14th overall.

Usha didn’t qualify in 1980. She later conquered all Asian events that were held in that decade, winning 10 Asian Games medals, including 4 gold and 23 medals at the Asian Athletics championships of which 14 were gold. The 2013 women’s relay team went to Moscow on the back of their gold winning performance at the Asian meet earlier this year. Usha missed bronze at the 1984 Olympics by a whisker. Her ward, Luka, at the 2012 Olympics clocked her season’s best timing 1:59.61s in 800m, but couldn’t make it to the finals. Indian iconic sportspersons like P T Usha have inspired the belief and the hope that the country can win the world, yet Indian athletes have never really gone beyond Asian supremacy.

Ranks at the topmost level of competition are decided by the difference of centiseconds. Usha tells what it takes to cover such slightest of a gap in an athlete’s performance—“the problem begins at the qualification level. Very few Indian athletes qualify for the Olympics. Contrast their numbers to those of Russia or USA. They’ve plenty of runners who clock very close timings.” Usha rues the lack of strong domestic competition. “How does Tintu Luka feel pushed if the runner behind her manages to finish in more than two minutes? We need our athletes to compete more at the international level in IAAF approved events,” she adds that such an exposure is essential, “this way they’ll get the experience of playing at the top-class level, so that we may never have a situation when an athlete feels nervous or under pressure.”

Usha feels that India’s sports infrastructure must be improved. She takes the example of the Luzhniki stadium, “There were four state of the art tracks in the premises. While over here we don’t even have one decent synthetic track in each state.” Asked what the country can learn from Russia’s sporting culture, she crisply replies, “Everything!” She says that, “It is evident that they place a high priority on sports,” which is something this iconic former athlete finds lacking in India.

Her recommendation for improving the situation is long-term planning—“You can’t expect changes in a few months or a year. We need to invest time and training in young sportspersons and then hope to see a turnaround in about five to ten years. We should train them as per age bands, say under-14, under-16, and under-18 teams. It is important to work on the grassroots level.” Usha employs this vision in her athletics academy in Kerala. She scouts talent and then trains them in the residential school. The Indian national record holder for 800m, Tintu Luka, is her discovery.

Usha started coaching right after her retirement from competitive sports in 1999. She places high expectations on the national coaches, especially the international experts who are employed with Indian sports, “The foreign coaches have the best possible facilities at their disposal. They are paid better salaries than their native counterparts. This investment must reflect in the performance of our athletes. So far the employment of foreign coaches has not translated into medals.”

The most important factor however remains the sportsperson’s own skill and determination. Usha attributes her own achievements to her mental strength, “I was prepared for the pain. I did everything my coach told me without bothering about my aching body or a lack of decent tracks. In those days one had to go to Patiala or Delhi to practice on synthetic track. Back home, I used to run on footpaths, along train tracks, almost anywhere. The athletes these days don’t have that kind of endurance. They give-up if you give them a strenuous workout.”

Usha is disappointed with not just the Indian squad for the World Championships but also with the event organization. “The 1980 Moscow Olympics were very good. I was there again in 1986 for the Goodwill Games. This time however the organization was not good enough,” she says. It turns out that the accommodation was the major problem, “The hotel was supposed to be half-an-hour away but given the traffic it used to take hour to-and-fro the stadium. The air-conditioning was bad and there was a lack of attention to the needs of the participants especially in terms of medical facilities.” Her experience in Moscow 2013 doesn’t quite level with that of the Olympics Games Complex in 1980.

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