The 16-year-old was baffled when her senior teammate asked her not to take the B-Complex tonic as she was going to compete the following day.
There would be people to check whether she was taking any medicine, said the experienced athlete to the teenager. That was how P.T. Usha first heard about doping in sport.
“I was part of the Indian contingent that went to Karachi for an invitational meet, before the Moscow Olympics of 1980 and I was taking B-Complex in liquid form, as advised by Dr. P.M.K. Nambiar, a cardiac specialist based in Kannur,” said Usha in an exclusive interview with The Hindu at her residence in Payyoli near here on Friday night.
“At the time I was suffering from a medical condition called epotic heartbeats (that causes irregular pulse) and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences had decreed that I was not fit for sport.
“It was the famous Thiruvananthapuram-based cardiac surgeon Dr. M.S. Valiathan, who later certified that I was fit to run the sprint events.”
Then, Dr. Nambiar prescribed her B-Complex and the other Nambiar, her coach (O.M.), asked her to take the tonic regularly. “It was the first time I was taking any vitamins and I felt better,” recalled Usha.
“So I just could not understand why my senior teammates asked me to stop taking the medicine. Before long, I started hearing incidents about Indian athletes using drugs to enhance their performances.”
The strangest of them all that she heard was about a male thrower. “In the '80s, there was this talk about a thrower whose urine was sent for testing after a meet and it tested positive for pregnancy!” Usha laughed.
“Apparently, his urine was replaced with that of a female nurse at the clinic. I don't know if the story was true, but in those primitive days of dope testing India, you could not have laughed it off.
“And that was a time when we heard about an Indian athlete who suffered from a severe side-effect of a banned substance.”
She said she never was asked to take drugs. “Though I was told several athletes were on drugs in my time, nobody had dared to ask me to follow suit, because they feared my coach Nambiar, I believe,” she said.
“I do recall one incident in New Delhi in the early '80s, when a doctor — not from the sports field — came up to me one morning while I was training at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium and said that I could improve my speed if I took a drug called Nerobol; I just smiled and continued with my practice. Only years later did I come to know it was the name of a steroid used by athletes.”
Usha was of course the most tested of all Indian athletes. “At the 1985 Asian Track and Field meet in Jakarta, where I won five golds and a bronze, I was taken for testing after every race, which reduced my recovery time considerably; otherwise I could have performed even better,” she said.
Usha believes India is too lenient when it comes to drug offenders. “We are too harsh initially when an athlete is tested positive for drugs and rush to crucify him or her,” she said.
“Then everyone works overtime to ensure that the offenders are given as lenient a punishment as possible; every loophole in the system is made use of. If an athlete is proved to have taken a banned substance, he or she should get the punishment that the offence carries anywhere else in the world.
“An athlete is responsible whatever she takes — be it food supplement or whatever. And we should stop our obsession with Russian coaches.”
Usha said she was delighted to learn that The Hindu was bringing out an edition from Kozhikode from Sunday.
“I have been a reader of The Hindu ever since I began my career on the track more than three decades ago and I am happy that there is now an edition from my hometown,” she said.
“It is to the sports pages of The Hindu I still look to for the correct timings in an athletics event.”