She may have run her last race in 1999, but P.T. Usha remains India’s best known track-and-field athlete. She missed an Olympic medal by one hundredth of a second at the 1984 Summer Olympics, won five gold medals at the Asian championship in 1985, and single-handedly lifted India’s overall standing at the Asian Games in 1986. Unlike most of the country’s champion athletes, Usha didn’t leave sport after her retirement; she became a coach and set up the Usha School of Athletics in Kerala. In this interview, she speaks about promising Indian athletes, why Kerala produces so many sportspersons, and sports management in the country. Excerpts:
It has been nearly 35 years since you finished a close fourth in the women’s 400 m hurdles at the Los Angeles Olympics. No Indian has come close to winning an Olympic medal in track and field since. When do you see this happening?
In 2024. I think javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra has a good chance of winning a medal at the Paris Olympics. He is the most talented athlete we have at the moment. He has progressed well, has an excellent coach in Uwe Hohn, and gets enough international exposure. And at 21, age is on his side. He seems to be a level-headed young man.
What do you think of Hima Das, the first Indian woman to win a gold medal at a World (Under-20) athletics meet?
She is a promising sprinter. She has improved her timing greatly. Let us see how she fares over the next year or so.
The second edition of the ‘Khelo India’ Youth Games concluded at Pune a few days ago. Your thoughts on this initiative by the Union government?
‘Khelo’ Games is certainly a good idea. I am happy to see that the government is trying to do something to improve sports at the grass-roots level and that lots of money is being spent on it.
But I feel there are several areas that need to be fine-tuned. There is too much bureaucracy. They still want to ‘assess’ somebody like Jisna Mathew, my ward who has already competed at the Olympics and won multiple medals in international meets. In Pune, the Kerala team had to wait for eight hours after their arrival at the railway station before they were provided accommodation. Such things shouldn’t happen at a prestigious meet like ‘Khelo India’. And I feel the government should ensure that the huge amount of money spent on each athlete is properly utilised. There are chances of it getting misused, which would defeat the purpose of the initiative.
That takes us to the issue of sports administration in the country.
There are several issues. For one thing, I would like to see some new faces in all sports associations. Often you have the same people controlling a sport. They may change their designations or they may be controlling affairs from behind the curtain even when they don’t have any role officially.
What about the role of the Sports Authority of India (SAI)?
The SAI has done some good things, but it could do a lot more, especially with the kind of machinery and infrastructure it has. I would like to see more people who have a background in sports or are passionate about sports in key roles in the SAI.
Kerala is a powerhouse in Indian sport, despite its relatively small size and population. Besides athletics, it is doing well in football, volleyball, basketball and now cricket (it played in the Ranji Trophy semifinals for the first time in history).
Kerala is doing well because here the kids are encouraged to compete in sports, both by parents and teachers in schools. Sport is well-run at educational institutions and clubs. Look at the way the State school athletics meet is organised. Most of our international athletes, including me, have come out of it. It is a huge event, and is covered extensively by the media. It is the Olympics of our schoolchildren.
Which are the other States that are doing a good job of promoting sport?
Haryana is now showing a lot of interest. Andhra, Telangana and Tamil Nadu are also encouraging their athletes. In States like Maharashtra, you will find excellent infrastructure for multiple sports.
But I am not amused by the tendency of the States to compete with one another in announcing cash prizes for a medal-winner at international meets. In our time, we ran our races to win medals, not to get crores of rupees from the government. When a minister announces that a medallist will be given a prize like ₹4 crore, the athlete would want to win at any cost, even with the help of banned drugs. Why don’t you give that medallist better training and more exposure in quality meets abroad?
In India it appears that for many, the main aim of playing a sport is to get a government job.
That is true, sadly. I have seen many talented athletes quitting sports as soon as they land a job. There should be a rule that somebody who is given a job under the sports quota should not be confirmed if they don’t compete for a specific number of years. There are also several cases of superior officers not giving time for athletes to do sports. I have seen one of my wards suffer because she is forced to do office work in her prime years as an athlete.
You started the Usha School of Athletics in 2002 with the aim of winning India an Olympic medal.
That is still what I am aiming for. I want to give an athlete whatever is required to be an Olympic champion: facilities, a synthetic track, scientific training, proper diet and international exposure. If I had all that, I could have certainly won an Olympic medal.
My school has already produced quality athletes like Tintu Luka and Jisna. But I have had to mould them. I am still waiting for a gifted, natural athlete, someone like me. I am quite hopeful about one of the youngest girls at the academy right now, though.
I am proud that my school has already contributed hugely to Indian athletics. We have won 67 international medals, besides 456 in national championships, 17 at inter-university meets as well as 499 at the State level. For a 16-year-old academy, that is an excellent record, I feel. I don’t think anybody else other than the SAI has had as much success.
You have had to turn to crowdfunding for your school this past year.
I am glad that we did; we need something like ₹60 lakh per year to run the school. It is so overwhelming to see that so many people from all over the world have contributed. We had to look at that option because of the needless controversy I was dragged into about the non-selection of athlete P.U. Chithra for the World championship a year ago. I was painted the villainess of the drama, without even checking the facts; I was only the observer for the Central government. Just about anyone, without the faintest idea about athletics, could appear on television channel and call me names. Could anything be more ridiculous than the suggestion that I was jealous of Chithra? It is a little sad to reflect that many people don’t know the contribution I made to Indian sport, against brave odds and often all alone for such a long time. If they did, they wouldn’t have put black oil on the signpost of the road named after me in Kochi. But it would not have been easy for them to destroy everything named in my honour: there is one in China, there are sports institutions in north India, and the coaching centre in Thiruvananthapuram.
Not that I hadn’t been treated badly before. People from my own home town had hurled stones at my house alleging that I didn’t give my best at the Seoul Olympics in 1988.
How much has Indian athletics changed since you began running as a schoolgirl 40 years ago?
On the positive side, we now have synthetic tracks all over the country. Before I made my Olympic debut at Moscow in 1980, I hadn’t seen a single one in my life.
Another big change is that the competition used to be lot more fair for women. The sex verification rules were a lot simpler. I am not sure if some of the female athletes today would have been able to compete in my time.
And yes, doping wasn’t this big an issue then. There were stray incidents, like the one involving a male Indian athlete; his urine test said that he was pregnant (his sample was apparently swapped with that of a female nurse).
For the last few years, India is among the top offending countries listed by the World Anti-Doping Agency.
That is a matter of shame. We should learn our lessons from Russia, whose athletes have been banned by the world athletics body. It is disappointing to find that we continue to have most of our coaches from the former Soviet Union. I had protested against the appointment of Yuri Ogorodnik, who had trained many of those who were caught for doping, but he was still welcomed back to India. Why can’t we get coaches from countries that have cleaner reputations? I also wonder why our athletes are sent to European countries for training in winter.
What do you think should be done to raise the profile of Indian athletics?
You have to take our meets to people, with quality television coverage. We certainly could do with more publicity. When you compete in places like Europe, you get to perform in front of packed stands. Here, our athletes are greeted by empty stadia.
Maybe athletics could also do with a professional league in India, about which there had been some talk but nothing has happened.
Yes, that is something we need. Look at what it has done to football and kabaddi.