Every morning at 4.30, Tintu Luka, 20, starts her day with warm-up exercises, jogging and finally running down a mud track in Kilanur, a nondescript village in north Kerala, 40km from Kozhikode. Circumstances notwithstanding, Luka has her eyes firmly set on the women’s 800m event at the next Olympics, to be held three years from now, and around 8,000km away in London.
Inspiration: P.T. Usha (left) is one of the first Indian athletes to establish an academy; students train while construction of a new track proceeds at Kilanur. (right) Usha School of Athletics
For the last eight years Luka, who juggles a bachelor’s in commerce with this regimen, has been training under the watchful eye of P.T. Usha, the golden girl of Indian athletics. And if all goes according to plan, Luka hopes to join a select league comprising her coach, Shiny Wilson, K.M. Beenamol and more recently, Anju Bobby George—all women athletes from Kerala who have made a mark on the international stage since the 1980s.
The Usha School of Athletics, tucked away in hill country in Koyilandy, Kozhikode district, has an ambitious goal: to bring home medals from the Olympics—Luka in 2012 for the 800m, and Nikhila Joseph, 15, in 2016 for the 200m and 400m races.
Next year’s Commonwealth Games in New Delhi will serve as a testing ground for some of this talent. Besides Luka, another six athletes from Usha’s school will participate, including Shilpa C., 18, in the 100m and 200m events and M.S. Darshana, 17, in the 100m hurdles.
Usha, who missed a medal in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics by 1/100th of a second, is determined to train a new band of athletes. “I want to upgrade the standard of athletics in India to, say, cricket... First, we must build up the medals,” says Usha, who retired from track and field events in 2000 with more than a hundred medals, and at 45, is still in great shape.
Her prodigy seems equally determined. “I want to get the medal in the Olympics that Usha chechi (elder sister) didn’t get,” says Luka, who won silver in the 800m at the 13th Asian Junior Athletics Championships in Jakarta in 2008.
Over the last three decades, several women athletes from Kerala have made it to the international arena. This has been attributed to reasons ranging from equal rights for women in the highly literate state to a protein-rich diet of rice, tapioca and fish, and colleges and schools that give sports training, says Ram Muralikrishnan, a freelance sports writer and contributor to the quarterly magazine of the International Association of Athletics Federations.
J.S. Saini, former national coach and adviser to the Athletics Federation of India, is all praise for Usha the athlete and Usha the trainer. “She is the first top athlete to make a real effort in training athletes.” Of course, sports academies run by sportspersons abound, such as the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy, the Brijesh Patel Cricket Academy and The Nike-Bhupathi Tennis Village. But there have been few efforts in athletics.
If Luka and company are able to achieve their goals, it will be quite a feat for the non-profit facility that started in 2002 with just Rs10,000. The school, which is free and exclusively for girls, attracted as many as 800 girls aged between 11 and 13 from across Kerala during its first selection process. A dozen were chosen, including Luka and Shilpa.
Now, the selection process is repeated annually in February. This year, eight girls joined the school, having cleared a battery of tests and screening by a panel of coaches and doctors. Those who are found wanting are weeded out. Currently, there are a total of 20 students at the school, all personally coached by Usha.
In its initial years, the school worked out a low-fat, high-nutrition diet in consultation with the Central Food Technological Research Institute in Mysore. The students are served three meals a day—a mix of traditional Kerala food such as puttu (steamed rice powder cakes), appams, chapatis, rice, fish, chicken, vegetables, eggs, fruits and green salad. Around Rs1 lakh and above is spent on a student—the figure can go up to Rs5 lakh for rising stars such as Luka—for accommodation, food, training, travel to state, national and international sports meets, education and additional tuition.
So how does Usha manage the funding? With generous donations from corporate giants such as Mohandas Pai, board member and director, human resources, at Infosys Technologies Ltd, and Sudha Murthy, wife of N.R. Narayana Murthy, chief mentor of Infosys, both of whom sponsor children at the school. “Kumari stood with me from the beginning,” says Usha, referring to Kumari Shibulal, wife of S.D. Shibulal, co-founder and chief operating officer at Infosys.
But it’s still not enough. The US probably has the best model for funding athletes, with hundreds of colleges and universities granting aid. And each school’s facilities are as good as those at India’s premier sports institute, Netaji Subhas National Institute of Sports in Patiala, says Saini. In the UK, the government invests £100 million (around Rs780 crore) for the top 1,500 athletes, or around Rs50 lakh each. Compare this with India, where around Rs1 lakh each is being spent on the contingent of 200-odd athletes preparing for the 2010 Commonwealth Games.
The difference in spending and facilities is reflected in the medals tally—at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the US bagged 110 medals, the UK, 47, and India, 3. The dearth of facilities in India is stark. Usha, who used to train on Payyoli beach in north Kerala—thus earning the nickname “Payyoli Express”—trained her band of girls on the very same seashore until a year ago, when the school moved from rented premises to a state government-granted 30-acre area. Bangalore-based real estate company Sobha Developers Pvt. Ltd pitched in to build a hostel free. A mud track, where the 20 girls train morning and evening, has recently been completed.
Now a new synthetic track is being laid. Also in the pipeline are a gymnasium and sports medicine centre. The school is Rs3-4 crore short on funds to accomplish all this but Usha, dreaming of Olympic medals, is set on completing all the work by 2010.