Asian Games: Predicting medal tally puts pressure on athletes, PT Usha says

A four-time gold medallist in 2006, the current IOA president and iconic athlete hopes for a pleasant Asiad experience as administrator as well

PT Usha as IOA President (photo courtesy: IOA)
PT Usha as IOA President (photo courtesy: IOA)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

For all the exploits of P.T. Usha on the track, the iconic Indian athlete has a soft corner for Asian Games. It was in Seoul 1986, two years after her fourth place finish at Los Angeles Olympics, that she underlined her status as the sprint queen of Asia with four of the five golds that India won there. 

Now in the hot seat of the President of Indian Olympic Association (IOA), the umbrella body of all Olympic disciplines in the country, she wants to create some more good memories as an administrator too. ‘’I am happy that Asian Games in the first major event in my tenure as an administrator. As you may be aware, I have some pleasant memories of the Games as an athlete and now want to create some more as an official,’’ the Payyoli Express said from the capital. 

Like in all editions of the Games, which has a major emotional connect with India which hosted the inaugural edition in 1951 and then again in 1982, IOA will be sending a jumbo 650-plus continent representing nearly 40 disciplines to Hangzhou, China. While the usual suspects like athletics, wrestling, shooting, boxing or weightlifting comprise a bulk of the contingent, their formidable presence in a number of new disciplines like cricket, chess and e sports is expected to cause a huge spike in the medals tally. 

The 2018 edition in Jakarta saw India finish with their best-ever haul of 70 medals in all, and the buzz in the promos makes one believe that it may cross the 100-mark this time. Speaking to National Herald in an exclusive interview over phone, Usha showed a guarded optimism about any such projections: ‘’Speaking from experience, I can say that predicting results like this only puts pressure on the athletes in a competitive environment. My only expectation is that they should have prepared well under the planning of the respective associations, must give their 100% in the arena and be wonderful ambassadors for the country. I am sure that our athletes will give us enough reasons to cheer,’’ she said.  

While Usha was not too keen on singling out disciplines as bigger medal prospects, events like athletics, hockey (men and women), wrestling, badminton, archery and weighlifting are the ones on her radar with good chances. No prizes for guessing that Usha, who had also tasted success as a coach in Asiad too (her protégé Tintu Luka landed a gold and silver at Incheon 2014), cannot keep calm when it comes to athletics.    

‘’If you look back, athletics has been the highest contributor of medals for India at the Games with a tally of 254, including 79 gold medals and I have high hopes this time as well. Our performance at the Worlds in Budapest had been extremely encouraging with Neeraj Chopra keeping his date with gold, while it was a surprise to have two more throwers in the finals.  

‘’The performance of the 4 x 400m men’s relay team was extraordinary alongwith steeplechase, though our athletes failed to do justice to their potential in the jump events. I hope Neeraj to defend his gold medal in China though Arshad Nadeem of Pakistan, the silver medallist, may give him a tough competition,’’ she weighed in.  

A mention of Neeraj’s achievements does make Usha, who had missed an Olympic medal by an agonising 1/100th of a second in 400m hurdles in Los Angeles 1984, emotional. Her X-post (then Twitter) on the javelin hero securing India’s first athletics medal in Olympics in Tokyo had simply gone viral: ‘’Realised my unfinished dream today after 37 years. Thank you my son.’’ 

Asked to elaborate on her positive vibes for a good result in athletics ahead of such a major competition, Usha said: ‘’Neeraj’s success is certainly helping to accelerate growth of athletics in the country as it has boosted the self belief of the boys and girls. However, the sporting ecosystem has also changed for the better over the past decade with the sports ministry working in tandem with the Sports Authority of India. 

‘’The Athletics Federation of India (AFI) has created a good programme where all the aspects of training, competition, dietary support of the upcoming athletes is taken care of now. It’s a far cry from the times of Milkha ji or myself, when all we knew was to work hard,’’ she said.  

 One of the few unsavoury tasks that Usha had to handle during her first 10 months as the IOA had been the wrestlers’ controversy. After facing flak on social media as well as the leading wrestlers involved with the agitation for commenting that they had ‘tarnished’ the reputation of the country by taking to the streets, Usha eventually met the agitators at Jantar Mantar and promised them support.  

‘’See, wrestling has been a productive sport for us at the Asiad as it has given us 59 medals. I believe that they have assembled a good squad which will be taking part under the IOA flag. As for the rest, let the law of the land take its course,’’ said Usha, the last words being a direct reference to the chargesheeted Brij Bhushan Singh, the former president of Wrestling Federation of India (WFI). It may be recalled that WFI has been banned by the world governing body, United World Wrestling (UWW) last month, for failing to conduct their elections on time. 

Does she feel that introduction of chess, cricket and e-sports will help in garnering a higher number of medals? ‘’Yes, I am confident that they will climb the podium. We have seen India participate in Commonwealth Games, so why not here?,’’ she argued.  

Life has not been easy for the 59-year-old Usha, who wears many hats – that of the IOA President, a Rajya Sabha MP as well as a mentor to her athletics school protges back home in Calicut, Kerala. Asked how challenging the role has been, Usha said with a customary smile: ‘’Well, it’s not a challenge a great opportunity for me to serve Indian sport in a different capacity after being an athlete and coach for so long.’’ 

 Point taken! 

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