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The Queen of Indian Track and Field

The legendary runner, P T Usha, loved by millions and an inspiration to all athletes in the 80s, was known as the Payyoli Express. Capt Seshadri profiles the prolific runner. 

Kerala. God’s own country. A land of lush green forests, sprawling backwaters and a pristine coastline. Somewhere along the Malabar Coast of Kerala lies the quiet town of Payyoli. And through this town runs an express. An express that does not run on steam, diesel or electricity. An express, however, that has won 101 gold medals internationally.

Pilavullakandi Thekkeparambil Usha better known to India and the world simply as PT Usha, hailing from this little town, earned the title of the “Payyoli Express” through her immortal achievements on the athletics track. Such is her fame and popularity that not just streets but even babies are named after her.

The early 1980s were not a particularly conducive period for Indian athletes, far less a woman. International training facilities and experienced coaches were virtually unknown. Exposure to the world arena was very limited and there was a complete lack of scientific management. In this scenario, Usha started running at the age of 13. As early as in Class VII, she was so quick that she would beat the then District champion. During her training sessions, she would request male athletes to pace for her; however, they never asked her to pace for them, afraid that they might not be able to match her!

Motivation and training, both of which were largely self-developed, were crucial to success even at the National level. There was abundance of talent but no means to channelise it, recalls Usha. To quote her: ““After many years of experience in athletics, I am convinced that what we lack in India is not talent, but the basic, modern and scientific facilities. If we train our young Indian sports talents, nothing, not even Olympic medals, is unachievable.” She dedicates her achievements to her coach and mentor, OM Nambiar who, in 1985, won the Dronacharya Award for his contribution to Indian athletics.

Dwelling on the past, she recalls how she could have made it big in the Los Angeles Olympics if only she had had the opportunity to participate and benefit from more international exposure. Nevertheless, she became the first ever Indian woman to reach an Olympics finals, winning the 400 metres hurdles semi-finals in 1984. She rues the manner in which she lost the bronze by 1/100th of a second, simply because she didn’t lunge at the tape. She was not used to it, simply because she would usually win most of her races by margins of 10 m.

To crown a glorious athletic career, in 2002, after her retirement from active competition, PT Usha strongly felt the need to take sport to the grassroots level and train and share her experience with budding young talent. Hence was conceived the ‘Usha School of Athletics’ focussed on girl athletes who, she firmly believes, have the potential to bring home Olympic golds. Her school has 18 girls, mostly from underprivileged backgrounds, living on the residential campus, schooling during the day and training for over 5 hours every day, in the mornings and evenings. Funding comes purely from individual donations, but that does not deter Usha from pursuing her ambition and goals.

At a time when India was virtually unknown in international athletics, the Payyoli Express stood out as a shining example of what determination and hard work could achieve against all odds. An icon and a living legend, PT Usha swept the 100, 200, and 400 metres, the 400 metres hurdles, and the 4 x 400 metres relay at the 1985 Asian Track and Field Championship in Indonesia, pushing India up from 14th to 4th place in the overall championship list. Usha was honoured the same year with the Padma Shree and Arjuna awards.

The Payyoli Express, who still jogs unfailingly every morning, expresses her anguish at the dropping fitness levels in kids. The best way to get them fit is to organise family games like football, basketball and running, she feels. Dwelling on the bad food habits of today’s children, she talks about how she used to eat large quantities of potatoes for her carb requirement. The how the food in LA during the 1984 Olympics was so bland that she carried a bottle of pickles to add to her food!

When she is not running or training her wards, Usha loves watching movies and to clean and cook. Quite natural to her roots, fish curry is her favourite food. Simplicity personified, humble and humane, PT Usha has etched a name in Indian athletics that will stay in memory for a long time to come.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

Capt Seshadri Sreenivasan is a former armed forces officer with over 30 years experience in marketing. He also a consulting editor with a leading publishing house. He is a co-author of the best selling biography of astronaut Sunita Williams

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The ‘Late’ Runner – Kip Keino

In our continuing series of legends in distance running, Capt Seshadri talks about the Kenyan distance runner Kipchoge Keino, nicknamed “The Flying Policeman”. 

It was the Mexico Olympics of 1968. A champion middle distance runner, was suffering from gallstones, and had been warned by doctors not to participate, as he might be putting his life at risk. He was not one to pay heed. Running the 10,000 m, suffering from severe exhaustion, he nearly collapsed on the track with just three laps to go and, in the process, disqualified himself by stepping off the track. Pain and disqualification notwithstanding, he stepped back and completed the race. Just two days later, ignoring his pain, he won silver in the 5,000 m, where he finished a mere fifth of a second behind the gold medalist.

Having also qualified on the same evening for the 1,500 m finals, on the day of the finals, after having tried to sleep off his ache and discomfort, he woke up an hour before the event and just about made it to the bus that was leaving for the venue. Stuck in traffic on the way and realising that he would be late for the event, he got off the bus and ran the remaining 3 km to the stadium, carrying his kit with him. Starting his event just 20 minutes or so after reaching the stadium, he raced to the 1,500 m gold, beating the silver medal winner, the then world record holder and title favourite, American Jim Ryun, by an unbelievable 20 m. To this day, it is not clear whether such a large margin has ever been seen between winner and runner in this event at any Olympics. Four years later, at the Munich Olympics, he won the steeplechase gold and the 1,500 m silver, thus winning almost every conceivable middle distance race.

It started here

Kipchoge Hezekiah Keino was born in Kenya on January 17, 1940. His incredible career in international athletics began at the Commonwealth Games in Perth in 1962, where he acquitted himself reasonably well, although he did not win any medals. His quest for gold fructified in 1965, at the All Africa Games where he broke the world record for the 3,000 m by over 6 seconds. Incidentally, he had never competed over that distance before. Later the same year, he shattered Ron Clarke’s 5,000 m world record in a time of 13:42.2.

As a child, Kip Keino went to a school around 4 miles from his home. From the tender age of five, in primary school, till he finished high school, he would run to class every morning, run home for lunch and back to school again, before sprinting home again in the evening. That worked out to an amazing 16 miles a day. And all of it barefoot under a scorching African sun! It is widely believed that Kip Keino was a fitness instructor in the Army and could have possibly trained using calisthenics. Although there very few documented reports about his schedule, some contend that he only ran around 60 or 70 miles a week, even taking off days every now and then.

Kenya’s Kip

Kip’s contribution to Kenyan athletics goes far beyond winning medals for his country. Years later, he remains an inspiration for hundreds of men and women athletes from his country who continue to make and break records in the world arena.

In his home town of Eldoret in Kenya, Kipchoge Keino, ably supported by his wife Phyllis, has established the Lewa Children’s Home, an institution for orphans, and the Kip Keino primary and secondary schools. For his dedication towards working with orphans, he was conferred with Sports Illustrated magazine’s “Sportsmen and Sportswomen of the Year” award in 1987, and characterized as one among “Athletes Who Care”. In 1996, he was inducted into the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

Capt Seshadri Sreenivasan is a former armed forces officer with over 30 years experience in marketing. He also a consulting editor with a leading publishing house. He is a co-author of the best selling biography of astronaut Sunita Williams

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The World’s greatest Runner – Part 2

Continuing with our series on the world’s greatest runners, Capt Seshadri talks about Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovet, known for their incredible performance and speed.

We have two more runners for your this week. They have set the tracks on fire with their dedication, performance and running style.

Knight Runner

Trinity College, Cambridge, has a clock within the Great Court, that takes 43.6 seconds to strike the 12 chimes of noon or midnight. The 1981 movie Chariots of Fire features a scene in which the runners attempt to run around the perimeter of the Court, a distance of 367 metres, within this time.

Sebastian Newbold Coe, now Baron Coe, CH KBE,was once credited with having achieved this stupendous feat in 42.3 seconds, only two other runners having succeeded in doing so in years as far apart as 1927 and 2007. Unfortunately, even with sufficient time left, a video recording indicated that he was 12 metres short of the finish, and his name does not feature in the record books.

Lord Coe is a living legend. Now a British politician and the convener of the London Olympics, this former middle distance runner was born on September 29, 1956. Coe came into the athletics limelight in 1977, winning but barely missing out on the world record in the 800 metres European Indoor Championships in San Sebastian. In 1979, he set three world records within a space of 41 days, in the 800 metres, the metric mile and the 1500 metres and followed it with four Olympic medals in 1980 and 1984.

Seb Coe had a training schedule that was peculiar; successful for him and criticised by some as a ‘complete waste of resources’, while attributing his successes to ‘genetic ability’. His workouts included a huge amount of gym work with weights, concentrating on the lower body, back and shoulders, and systematic core building. Even in the early days, he believed in ‘circuit training’ with high reps and short recoveries. He was a staunch advocate of Pylometrics – the transfer of strength to power that was specific to running.

During the cold months, Coe would run at a moderate pace of 5 km, sprint uphill with long gaps of recovery and compete with sprinters to preserve the element of speed.He developed a reputation of pushing hard during the later stages of long runs, sometimes doing 16 km in ¾ of an hour.

Although there is not much information on his eating habits, his seemingly erratic methods of training provoked his detractors to observe that if his diet was like his training, he was probably drinking lots of soda and eating peanut butter sandwiches.

His rivalry on the track with Steve Ovett is the stuff of legends. Interestingly or rather, sadly, Seb Coe is colour blind.

The runner with the kick

Stephen Michael James ‘Steve’ Ovett, OBE, was born in Brighton, England on October 9, 1955. A champion middle distance runner, he won Olympic gold in Moscow in 1980, while also setting world records in the 1500 metres and the metric mile. In the mid 70s, the 1500 metres champion was a runner named John Walker; but in 1977, Steve Ovett shot to prominence with his regular wins over Walker. A great finisher, in the European Cup 1500 metres, he produced an unbelievable last lap of 52.4 seconds to pip his competitor to the post.

As a teenager, Steve was noticed for his prowess as a footballer, but reportedly gave up the sport, not wanting to indulge in a game where he would have to rely on his team mates. The ‘kick’ of football seemed however, to be part of his genes for, in the inaugural IAAF Athletics World Cup, with 200 metres left for the finish, he produced a tremendous ‘kick’, taking the last turn in 11.8 seconds and completing the final 200 metres in 25.1, leaving the rest of the field, led by John Walker, way behind him. It is recorded that Walker was left so surprised by this sudden kick that he simply stood and watched, dropping out of the race with 120 metres left to go.

Steve Ovett was coached by Harry Wilson, one of the best trainers of those days. In his book ‘Running My Way” Wilson describes, among others, Ovett’s methodical training schedule. A base of 24 weeks was broken down into 6 sessions of 4 weeks each, further classified into easy running, medium effort and hard aerobic running. In these 24 weeks, Ovett would average around 160 to 190 km per week. The intensity and speed would steadily increase with around 70% being done at a steadily medium pace, pushing hard at the end with the balance 30%. All this was combined with bouts of soft, anaerobic speed training.

Steve Ovett confesses that he had only one really tough opponent, although they raced against each other only six times. However, their competition and rivalry stayed firmly on the track alone; nothing was personal or political. To reproduce some quotes of Steve Ovett that immortalises this rivalry:

Make no mistake, when the gun was fired, both of us wanted to win as badly as the other and that’s probably what drove us on to achieve what we did.But when you look at his place in the history of middle-distance running now, Seb Coe is one of the all-time greats.From first-hand experience of trying to catch the bugger, he was the hardest to run against because every compartment of his racing technique was bullet-proof.”

Stephen Michael Ovett, OBE now lives in Australia, working as an athletics commentator with CBC. However, his legacy lives on in Preston Park, his home town of Brighton, where a bronze statue was erected in 1987. Twenty years later it suddenly went missing and was finally replaced with a copy in 2012.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

Capt Seshadri Sreenivasan is a former armed forces officer with over 30 years experience in marketing. He also a consulting editor with a leading publishing house. He is a co-author of the best selling biography of astronaut Sunita Williams

 

 

 

 

 

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