One of the grand lighthouses in the history of Indian women’s sports is undoubtedly Pilavullakandi Thekkeraparambil Usha. Even though the ‘Star of the Continent’ retired in 2000, she is still one of the most talked about athletes in the Indian sporting world. In the month of July 2022, she made the news as she took oath as Rajya Sabha MP. However, the legacy of P.T. Usha began in 1977 when she was noticed by a renowned coach, O.M. Nambiar. It was the beginning of this cordial relationship between teacher and student that led the ‘Queen of Indian Track and Field’ to international glory.
P.T. Usha was born into a poor family in Meladi-Payyoli, Kerala. It is from her birthplace that she gets the title ‘Payyoli Express’. In spite of poverty and lack of nourishment, Usha displayed early flair in sports. Since childhood, she had a lean athlete’s figure and would even walk very fast. Her career began with winning six medals at the inter-state meet for juniors, in Kollam in 1978, with four gold medals in 100 metres, 200 metres, 60 metres hurdles, and high jump, silver in the long jump, and bronze in the 4 x 100 metres relay. She then went on to conquer the Kerala State college meet, and won multiple medals at the 1979 National Games and 1980 National inter-state meet.
In 1985, at the sixth Asian Championships in Athletics in Jakarta, Usha won five gold medals and one bronze. Two of her gold medals were clinched within just half-an-hour; a historic achievement that no male or female athlete has surpassed to date. Usha has won 102 national and international medals throughout her illustrious career and was also been awarded the prestigious Arjuna Award and Padma Shree in 1984 for showing outstanding performance in sports.
P.T. Usha is a huge example of the fact that it does not matter who you are or where you begin your journey—with grit and determination, everything is possible. From her struggles on the streets of Kerala to becoming a Member of Parliament; her journey is a shining example for all young women, as well as men. She challenges normative gender roles and a backward patriarchal society that still believes that the realm of sports belongs to men. Even today, around 95% of the sports budget allocated by the government goes to men’s sports. This itself reflects gross inequality. However, recent schemes like Khelo India, which allocates nine crores to Indian sportswomen and National Youth schemes have encouraged Indian women’s participation in sports.
Legends of the Indian sporting community such as P.T. Usha, Hima Das, Mary Kom, and others show the way that there exist glorious careers in sports. Even though sports as a profession is often seen as a career path that’s off the beaten track; especially for women, the achievements of P.T. Usha speak for themselves. Although she is now a member of the Parliament, her true love lies in the field, as she spends most of her time coaching young girls at the Usha School of Athletics to become stars of the future.
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