Iconic Indian sportspersons like Usha have inspired the belief and the hope that the country can win at the highest stage yet Indian athletes have never really gone beyond Asian supremacy. Source: AFP/EastNews
The athlete who was nicknamed the “Payyoli Express” made her Olympic debut in Moscow in 1980. Back in the Russian capital more than three decades later for the IAAF World Athletics Championships, P T Usha told RIR that she was impressed with the facilities for athletes in Moscow, but was critical of the logistics at the event.
Usha was in Moscow in her capacity as the coach of Tintu Luka, who ran with the Indian women’s 4X400 metre relay team. Luka, Nirmala Sheoran, Anu Mariam Jose, and M.R. Poovamma failed to qualify for the final round, clocking a below-par 3:38.81s, and finished 14th overall.
Though she didn’t qualify for the finals in Moscow in 1980, Usha conquered all Asian events that were held in that decade. She won 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 had gone to Moscow on the back of their gold medal winning performance at the Asian meet earlier this year. Iconic Indian sportspersons like Usha have inspired the belief and the hope that the country can win at the highest stage yet Indian athletes have never really gone beyond Asian supremacy.
The Payyoli Express 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 Usha 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 800 metres, Tintu Luka, is her discovery.
Ranks at the topmost level of competition are decided by the difference of centi-seconds. Usha, who missed out on a bronze medal in the 1984 Olympics by a whisker, tells us what it takes to cover the slightest of gaps 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 have 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. Such exposure is essential, according to the Indian legend. “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 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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