Pilavullakandi Thekkeparambil Usha or P.T. Usha is a name synonymous with Indian athletics. The ‘Payyoli Express’ as she was fondly known during her athletic career, was a raw talent picked by the great coach O.M. Nambiar from Payyoli village in northern Kerala. She is one of the greatest athletes produced by the country and in the Los Angeles Olympics of 1984, Usha missed a medal by a whisker in the 400 m women hurdles competition, reaching fourth, bringing in a heartbreak to the Indian population.
Exactly on the 37th anniversary of that heartbreaking moment, with the country and the sports fraternity in ecstasy over the gold-winning performance of Neeraj Chopra, P.T. Usha spoke to IANS.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q: The country is rejoicing at the gold of Neeraj Chopra who has scripted history being the first Indian athlete to win gold. As an international athlete who brought laurels to the country and as a trainer and coach who has moulded several athletes, what’s your comment on this win?
A: Neeraj Chopra’s win has boosted the morale of a country that had seen narrow misses in Olympic athletics. This has given that feel — We can. This is an inspiration to the youths and children of this country to perform and I feel that India will produce several gold medal winners in athletics in the future. The feel that ‘We Can’ is important and in a single word this is what Neeraj has done for this country and the athletic fraternity of the country.
Q: As a top-notch Indian athlete, did you feel that Neeraj would perform in this manner at Tokyo?
A: I was witness to his throw at the 2016 IAAF World Under 20 championships in Poland, and he had created history there winning the gold with a throw of 86.48 m fetching him the world record in that category. As an Under 20-year-old athlete performing at a world championship, I could see his cool demeanor and his mental strength and I had a liking for him and knew that he was made for bigger things. Neeraj Chopra more than anything, is a focused and cool athlete and his mental temperament has given him a great victory.
Q: What do you think were the major factors for Neeraj’s huge victory in the Summer Olympics ?
A: As I said earlier, Neeraj is a focused athlete. He never wilts under pressure and this is a very important factor in international competitions. Whatever talent we have will not give you results until and unless you are focused, put in long hours for the game, polish your skills, and mentally be composed and cool. These were all seen in full, in Neeraj. Even the injury to his throwing hand did not deter him from coming up in his career, and this showed his steely resolve for success. You would have seen his cool manner while he was gearing up for the event. That has given him good strength over his competing athletes and fetched the country gold.
Q: This is the greatest moment for Indian sports and athletics in particular. As a former athlete, what is your suggestion for the country to get more gold medals in international athletic competitions including Olympics?
A: We need to scout for raw talents and polish them and develop them into great athletes. I had given this suggestion to all the people who matter for the past several years. We have to pick talent and nurture them into great athletes. We are now giving preference only to performers but to scout for raw talents is something different and in rural India, we can get these talents.
Q: Kerala women had monopolised in the Indian track and field games but in Tokyo, there was not a single Keralite woman in the squad.Your comments ?
A: It was not because Kerala is having a dearth of talents, it was because of certain injury-related issues that led to our women athletes not being in the Indian team. Jishna Mathew and P.S. Vismaya would have been in the Indian team but Jishna was recuperating from an injury and she had to contend with photo finish in the selection trials and hence was not in the team. She is an experienced athlete and was slowly grooming back to form before the Olympics and had she qualified, she would have given her best at Tokyo. Vismaya was also injured and this was the result of the non-inclusion of the women athletes from Kerala in the squad.
Q: After your active competing years, you are now running the PT Usha School of athletics. Do you feel talents coming up in the country in the future, as a coach rather than an athlete?
A: Yes we have immense talent and in two years’ time you can find world class athletes coming up from PT Usha School of Athletics. In other places also good athletes are coming up and Neeraj’s victory will be a major catalyst for youngsters to take up athletics as a career and if only they take this up as a full time vocation, we can taste success. As far as this generation of athletes are concerned, they have only heard about the performance of us but now they have seen directly what it means to be an Olympic champ and how the world respects and gives encouragement to you. This means a lot to Indian athletics and I am sure we will see more gold winning performances in the near future in international athletic competitions.
Q: How is the response of the Government of India to athletics and sports in general?
A: The Government of India, especially Prime Minister Narendra Modi is really doing a good job as far as sports is concerned. The care and concern of the Prime Minister was seen by all of us when he called up the Indian men’s hockey team after their semi-final loss to Belgium and encouraged them to play for the bronze without any tension. That will give immense confidence and self-esteem to a player. This care and concern shown by the Prime Minister must be replicated down the order and then only the execution will happen. As a whole, we are doing good as far as the administration is concerned regarding sports in the country.