P T Usha: From Payalli Express to Patron Saint

Posted By: Ayaz Memon|Dated: November 11, 2011

She may never have won an Olympic medal, but the Indian athlete I admire most still is P T Usha –not only because she set the tracks ablaze all over the world in the 1980s (Usha missed a bronze at the Los Angeles Games by a whisker in the 400 m hurdles), but also because of the impact she has had on Indian life.

P T Usha

Till Usha arrived as a precocious 16-year-old in 1979 in the National School games, women athletes in India were few and far in between. The women’s hockey team, some swimmers and the occasional shot-putter aside, there were hardly any women athletes competing at the Asian, let alone global, level.

Women empowerment was a phrase that barely existed in India in the 1970s and 80s; if it did, it was only in the elite class, and even in this stratum, there was hardly any encouragement for girls to pursue athletics. P T Usha, a young lady from Payolli, Kerala, was to bring about a massive change in the way Indian women athletes would be perceived — and perform — thereafter.

Her name — Pilavullakandi Thekkeparambil Usha – was a mouthful, and she won medals by the bagful. A brief rundown of her achievements will put her talent in perspective. In the 1982 Asian Games in Delhi, she won silver in the 100 and 200m sprints. Graduating to the 400m, she won a gold medal in the Asian Track and Field Meet in Kuwait next year, and by the end of the decade had won a total of 13 gold medals in such meets.

Despite missing the bronze in the 1984 Olympics, Usha was widely considered amongst the top sprint and hurdle athletes of her generation. Irrespective of not winning an Olympic gold, Usha’s bigger contribution was to spark a movement that produced some outstanding women athletes, almost all of them from the south. M D Valsamma, Shiny Abraham, Vandana Rao and Ashwinin Nachappa – along with Usha – all became household names not just in India, but worldwide.

In 2001, when I was national sports editor of the Times of India, I was approached by somebody close to her who wished to meet a top industrialist in Mumbai to seek his assistance in financing an athletic school for girls. I set up a meeting but later learned that it never took place; the businessman was too busy.

A lesser person would have crumbled, but Usha steeled herself and pushed for the project with greater vigour. The Usha School of Athletics was founded on May 29, 2002 at Koyilandy with the help of another corporate house.

The academy, which has a preponderance of girl athletes, hopes to produce someone who could win an Olympic medal in the 2012 London Games. This seems far-fetched now, but there is a plethora of young sportspersons under Usha’s wings who hold out promise for the 2016 and 2020 events.

Her influence on Indian sport and society has been massive. In many ways, she has broken the glass ceiling that kept Indian women from participating in sports. Culturally, women in India have either been overly protected from interaction with the `outside’ world and/or denied opportunity to find their métier, and this is particularly true with sports. Social taboos and early marriages have not only robbed girls of actualizing their potential, but also the country of at least 50 per cent of the talent resource available. Just how big that loss is can be gauged from the fact that women won more medals than men at the Commonwealth Games.

A change in this mind-set is going to be slow, but it is now inevitable. Women are coming into their own in every walk of Indian life, especially sports. And, when this process reaches fruition, it might be well to remember the First Lady of Indian sport.

About the author:

Ayaz Memon

Ayaz Memon has been a journalist for more than 32 years and has written extensively on sports, politics, and cinema. After graduating in economics and law from Bombay University, Memon pursued journalism as a career after a chance job with Sportsweek magazine in 1978 while still at law school. A passion for sports — cricket, in particular — influenced his decision not to follow in his father’s footsteps as a lawyer.

Through the years since, he has been editor of Sportsweek, editor of Mid-Day, national sports editor of Times of India and editor of Bombay Times and editor-at-large of DNA, which he quit in November 2009. Currently he is a columnist for several newspapers and also consulting editor with newsX.



Ayaz has authored three books on cricket and co-authored one on the golden jubilee of India’s Independence titled India 50 – The Making of A Nation.


The views expressed above are those of the author, and not necessarily representative of the views of the Mahindra Group.



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