Free Spirit

By Ranjit Bhatia

Where young gitrls are constrained to stay at home, she dared to run

In 1999, more than two decades after she first tasted fame, P.T. Usha still runs for India. It is not that no other star has emerged, but that she and Indian athletics have remained so essentially intertwined.

Much like Milkha Singh she narrowly missed an Olympic medal. Much like Milkha again she made a substantive contribution to India's athletic movement.

In 1979, when she made a debut, athletics was very much a male preserve and track-suited women a rarity. But the 1982 Asian Games in Delhi, and Usha's later progress led to a resurgence of women's sport.

A loner, Usha was hardly aware of it. She trained systematically, obsessed about her success. By 1984 she was a vastly improved athlete, but missed a bronze at the Los Angeles Olympics by 1/100th of a second. Still, she smiled, saying, "I am very happy to have set an Asian best (55.42) for the event."

Her greatness lay in her ability to cover up any sense of failure. In 1986 she totally dominated the Asian Games at Seoul, winning the 200 m (23.44 secs), 400 m (52.16 secs), 400 m hurdles (56.06 secs), and 4 x 400 m relay. It established her as the nation's leading athlete and for the next five years India relied heavily on her.

Marriage in 1991 was followed by retirement. But encouraged by her husband she returned in 1994. The new Usha was wiser, and though not all was heroic there were moments of history too. In 1998, with 30 Asian medals behind her, she went to the Asian Track and Field championships in Japan as a veteran. But bronze medals in 200 and 400 m, and two relay medals proved she was not out of breath yet. A month later she set a new national mark for the 200 m, bettering her 1989 mark. Critics may have scoffed at her but never at her dedication.

She will be remembered for being a trendsetter. Hailing from a modest middle- class background, her success led to a chain reaction. Young girls constrained by custom to stay at home, have dared to run. It is a revolution that has but one catalyst. Usha.

Ranjit Bhatia is a mathematics lecturer at St Stephen's College, Delhi. He ran the marathon in the 1960 Rome Olympics.

PRAKASH PADUKONE: Nine-time national badminton champion, won the All-England Championship in 1980 and the World Cup in 1981.

MICHAEL FERREIRA: Won the World Amateur Billiards Championship in 1977, 1981, 1983. He held 17 world records.

GEET SETHI: Won World Amateur Billiards Championship in 1985 and 1987, the Pro World in 1992, 1993 and 1998.

RAMANATHAN KRISHNAN: Only Indian to make Wimbledon semis in 1960-61. In the world Top 5, he won 47 titles.



builders & breakers
makers of equity
thought & action
art & culture
sporting spirit

Dhyan Chand
Tenzing Norgay
Sunil Gavaskar
Sachin Tendulkar
Viswanathan Anand
P.T Usha


Indian music lovers, click here




Living Media India Ltd