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Who is Payyolli Express? First woman Chief of IOA in its 95-year-old history

Niti Post - December 12, 2022
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Fondly known as the “Queen of track and field” India’s Sports Star PT Usha has been elected as the first woman chief of the Indian Olympic Association. This feat is nothing short of breaking a glass ceiling in the ever-changing and sometimes rigid arena of the sports world.

The 58-year-old Pilavullakandi Thekkeparambil Usha gained immense popularity back in the 1980s and has secured her name on the wall of fame for her medals and charismatic speed at a time when women and sports were two words that didn’t align.

Payyolli Express, the Trend Setter!

Born in Kuttali, a village in Kerala, PT Usha studied in nearby Payyoli that later gave rise to her nickname The Payyoli Express. She discovered her knack for sports, a natural talent world was yet to know, at the early age of nine.

She became a winner as soon as she started. Stunning judges and the audience, this fourth-grade student effortlessly went on to beat the school champion, three years her senior during a school race. Over the next few years, she found herself a place in one of the first batches of sport-oriented schools the Kerala government had set up at that time.

1980s – The Years of her Becoming

She continued to dominate state and national meets until almost reached the Olympics in the 1980s too. At age of 16, Usha became the then-youngest sprinter to be included in the contingent for the 1980 Games in Moscow.

Unfortunately, she didn’t make the cut for the final but went on to rule Asian Championships over the next few years. In the 1982 Asian Games, she won silver in both 100m and 200m. She broke her own 200m record at the 1983 Asian Championships after winning her first Gold at this game in the 400m.

At the Cusp of Sporting Glory

The Los Angeles Olympics of 1984 came as a turning point in the life of this sports icon. She breezed in to qualify for the 400m hurdles final but missed out on the bronze medal by just one-hundredth of a second.

Marking a chapter that the sports world often looks back to, the star athlete overcome a false start, bolted like electricity in the final stretch of 100m, and even though her leg was ahead of eventual bronze winner Cristieana Cojocaru, she could not dip her chest into the finish line.

Despite her defeat, this game made this 20-year-old a household name in the country. Moreover, her time (55.42 seconds) was a new national record that stands to date.

The Golden Streak!

During the 1985 Asian Championships at Jakarta, PT Usha set a new record by winning six medals, including five golds. She won her next four golds at the 1986 Seoul Asian Games, each in Asian record time, including a silver.

The Retirement & an Eventual Twist in the Tale

The 1990s became a bit of a struggle for the iconic woman athlete as she suffered a recurrent knee problem. This was also the time when she announced her retirement but not without ending the golden streak with four golds and five silvers at the 1989 Asian Championships and 1990 Asian Games.

She won 23 medals in the Asian track and field events from the 1980s; including 14 Gold.

A twist came when our sports star reignited her passion, taking inspiration from four-time Olympic gold medallist Evelyn Ashford. She decided to come back to the tracks with the support of her husband V Sreenivasan, a former national kabaddi player.

In her next two games, the Asian Games in 1994 and 1998 Asian Championships, Usha showed her incredible talent and bagged various medals but the last leg of her sporting journey came with the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney.

PT Usha is perhaps the first Indian sports icon who returned to track and field after taking a hiatus from the sport following her marriage in 1991. As due recognition for her achievements, she has also been conferred with the Padma Shri and Arjuna Award.

"Now I want to ensure that one of my students wins one” – When she became a Coach for Life… After her retirement, Usha decided to start her journey as a mentor. She was actively involved in athletics as a coach and became a leader who guided upcoming budding Indian athletes. Her academy, Usha School of Athletics located at Kinalur, Kerala continues to train athletes, ensuring India’s future athletic stars reach the same heights that she did.

As an able Sports Administrator, PT Usha also served as the chairperson of the junior selection committee in the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) before contesting for the IOA elections unopposed in 2022.

With this, she became the first Olympian and the first international medallist to head the IOA in its 95-year-old history. “Through the experiences of my journey I know very well the value of this post, she said in her humble note after receiving the designation, highlighting that she finds herself fit for this position as she “feels the pain of an athlete and that of a coach. Above all, about the role of a true admin.”

 

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