There’s a saying that people do not remember those who come fourth in the Olympics. Fortunately, the same hasn’t been true for PT Usha, whose name invokes goosebumps, even to this day, for the people of India; especially for those who have watched her lose the bronze by 1/100th of a second in the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.
Nearly three decades later, Usha’s dreams of an Olympic medal found their opportunity in a young girl named Tintu Luka. As she failed to make it to the finals of the London Olympics, one could see the Keralite’s hopes crashing and wished Luka would bring home that elusive piece of metal four years later in Rio.
In fact, Luka went from strength to strength following her failure at London. First, she secured bronze at the 2013 Asian Athletics Championship in Pune, then silver at the Incheon Asian Games the next year, followed by a gold medal at the 2015 Asian Athletics Championship in Wuhan. Naturally, expectations of a medal in Rio, weren’t unreasonable.
Luka toiled to merit those expectations. Born in Valathode, a small village in the Kannur district of Kerala, Luka completed her education from St Thomas High School in Karikkottakary and began training under Usha at the PT Usha School of Athletics in 2001. Her routine since then has been demanding, to say the least.
There have been days of scarcity and financial distress as well. While Luka was away for the London Olympics, her family had to remain in a relative’s house at Iritty to watch her on television. The village had been swept by torrential rains resulting in power disruption and a transport crisis.
It was Luka’s sacrifices – staying away from home during Christmas, for Decembers were always a time for competitions – that saw them move to a more decent two-storey house in January, 2015.
But as her mother, Lissy laments, “Tintu has been so focused on her training that she has not been able to stay with us in the new house. She has come here just thrice, and had to leave hurriedly each time.”
Gearing up for the ultimate showdown at Rio 2016, Luka knew it was going to be her best chance at securing a prestigious Olympic medal. At 27, the national record-holder in the women’s 800 metre race is at the prime of her career, and with a legendary personality as her personal trainer, a failure would be too much of a letdown.
However, on August 17, it became clear that an Olympic medal was not to be. During the third heat of the women’s 800m, Luka took an early lead in the race only to fall behind in the second lap onward to ultimately finish sixth with a timing of 2:00:58. Consequently, she failed to reach the semi-finals of the event.
The fact that Luka could not add to Sakshi Malik and PV Sindhu’s tally will probably be forgotten soon, more because her failure hadn’t been as excruciating as Usha’s. She had been defeated convincingly by the others and that is perhaps what makes her case far less agonizing in a campaign that has witnessed Abhinav Bindra and Dipa Karmakar flirting with destiny before ending up fourth in their respective competitions.
As for the girl concerned, only time will reveal what the future has in store.
Perseverance and sacrifices form an integral part of every success story. And PV Sindhu’s tale as India’s first woman to win an Olympic silver medal is no exception. In pursuit of the much-coveted Olympic hardware, the young badminton player gave up the life enjoyed by bubbly 21-years olds without design on glory at the Games.
Her mentor, Pullela Gopichand – a former All England Open champion – knows all too well what it takes to reach the pinnacle of anythis sport. Being a strict disciplinarian, commitment and dedication are the top qualities that he seeks from any budding shuttler under his nurturing wing.
Sindhu fits the bill entirely. An extremely diligent pupil, she obediently followed whatever her coach told her in order to realise that Olympic dream. She even had her phone taken away from her for the last three months so as not to disturb her preparations.
“Sindhu did not have her phone during the last three months. The first thing is I would return her phone,” the 42-year-old said after Sindhu was defeated i nthe Olympic final by world No1 Carolina Marin in three gruelling games.
That was not all. The World No10 was even barred from touching her favourite dessert when the team arrived in Rio.
“The second thing, after coming here for last 12-13 days, I had deprived her from having sweet curd which she likes most. I also stopped her from eating ice-cream. Now she can eat whatever she wants,” added Gopichand.
The sacrifices extended to her parents as well. Since she was an eight-year-old kid, her father PV Ramana, a former volleyball player himself, tirelessly drove 60km twice a day to see that his daughter gets proper training under Gopi’s tutelage. Not only that, he even took an eight-month leave from work to be by her side during the crucial period heading into the Olympics.
Sindhu’s mother Vijayalakshmi even sought voluntary retirement from her employers to be able to impart her courage and strength whenever she needed it.
It has thus been a well-rounded team effort that brought India this long-awaited glory. Her story will surely act as an inspiration to millions of young girls in the country ready to spread their wings in the world of sport.
So, what happened to all the Zika hype?
As we head towards the end of these Olympic Games, suddenly things have gone strangely quiet on the mosquito front. Funnily enough just like the mosquitoes in Rio, which don’t seem to make the usual annoying high-pitched whine that they do in other parts of the world.
Much was made of the dreaded Zika virus in the build-up to these Games, with high-profile athletes such as golfers Jason Day and Rory McIlroy, US basketball players and tennis stars like Wimbledon runner-up Milos Raonic all citing Zika fears for not travelling to Brazil. One Canadian law professor even wrote in the Harvard Public Health review that the Olympics should be moved or delayed because of the risk. But the World Health Organisation clearly know their stuff and declared it safe.
I have to smile. When I arrived in Rio almost three weeks ago, we weren’t even 10 metres past the customs desks at the airport when some Japanese members of the media whipped out their anti-mozzie products and started applying them with vigour.
Yes, of course you try to take precautions. I did too (not that the mozzies here seem too perturbed by my insect repellents), but the truth is that the Zika virus has been found across most of South America, the Caribbean, up into Mexico and now also Miami, Florida. And in Brazil, the epicentre of the outbreak is far from Rio in the north eastern part of the country. If you heeded all the travel warnings in the world, you wouldn’t leave your front door.
But I’m used to hype – I’m South African after all and had a good giggle at all the negative build-up to the 2010 FIFA World Cup in my own country. If all those reports were to be believed, tourists were going to be charged by rhinos in the streets, footballers were to be bitten by snakes at their training venues and we were all going to be sitting in half-built stadiums. None of it happened, of course.
So I know not to take these horror stories too seriously. Which is a good thing since I am currently covered in mozzie bites.
While some didn’t find it too funny, I have to admit I enjoyed the fastest man on the planet’s response to questions on Zika fears a few months before the start of the Games. Usain Bolt joked that he was too quick for the mozzies to catch him.
He certainly was Friday night as the sprinting legend successfully completed his historic triple treble, winning the third of his gold medals here in Rio along with his Jamaican 4x100m relay teammates – Asafa Powell, Yohan Blake and Nickel Ashmeade – much to the delight of the adoring crowd in the Olympic stadium.
That’s three out of three at three consecutive Olympics. It’s surely impossible that anyone will get close to that record any time soon.