While the nation celebrated Mary Kom’s boxing bronze in London on Wednesday, people in the state of Kerala had another reason to be cheerful.
Tintu Luka, the third Indian woman to enter the semi-finals of an Olympics event, is their latest object of pride. Tintu qualified for the semi-finals of the 800 m and will run the finals with stars like Caster Semanya of South Africa on Thursday.
Touted as the next best thing Kerala has produced after the trio of PT Usha, Shiny Wilson and MD Valsamma, who dominated the glorious Indian athletic medal hunt of the 1980s and 90s, Tintu has been at the centre of intense public attention in the state.
That she is Usha’s protege, handpicked and trained by India’s greatest ever woman runner, makes her special.
Burdened by the weight of expectations and her mentor’s legendary reputation, Tintu was a disappointment at her first big international event, the Commonwealth Games in 2010. Usha came to her rescue and said it was the sheer scale of the event that undid her.
Usha vouched for Tintu, saying she was rare talent and would certainly shine in London. On Wednesday, she certainly did.
Another of Usha’s finds and proteges, Mayookha Johny, the first Indian woman to cross the 14 metre mark in long jump, also participated in the London Olympics, but failed to qualify for the finals.
Tintu is the latest of the medal hunting women athletes, mostly runners, that Kerala has produced over the last three decades ever since Angel Mary John won a silver for India at the Bangkok Asian Games in 1978.
Since then, it has been a regular torrent of athletes from the state- MD Valsamma, PT Usha, Shiny Wilson, Mercy Kuttan, Rosa Kutty, Padmini Thomas, Philomina Thomas, Saramma, Tessymol, KA Beenamol, Anju Bobby George, Chitra Soman, Sinimol Paulose, Preeja Sreedharan… a low-cost assembly-line of raw talent that saved face for the country’s bloated sports establishments.
Out of the 16 Arjuna Award winners in the state, 14 are women. And most of them came from modest or poor migrant Christian families, mostly living in the hilly villages on the eastern belt of the state. Coincidentally, this belt also produced bulk of the state’s nuns, farmers, and nurses.
If Angel Mary John was a trailblazer in 1978, Valsamma, Usha and Shiny created a phenomenon that inspired a whole new generation of girls who ran barefoot in the hills.
In 1982, Valsamma surprised the entire country with a gold at the Delhi Asian games. Two years later, at the LA Olympics, Usha almost won a medal in 400 metres, while Shiny made it to the semi finals in the 800 metres. Together, the three of them brought home loads of gold and silver medals from track and field events all over the world for the next 10-15 years.
With a new generation of girl-athletes, the never-ending conundrum is back. What makes Kerala girls; that too from poor or modest families; good athletes, or rather medal winning runners?
Is it genetic? Socio-economic circumstances? Or just sheer desperation to succeed when faced with no other opportunities?
Given their socio-economic background, the second and third reasons are the most plausible. Plus, perhaps the tough terrains that most of them come from make them physically fit and naturally inclined towards endurance sports. They turn the lack of opportunities and their tough way of life into an advantage.
The stars that strode before them showed the way and they run and jump; first in school meets which are the veritable nurseries for the state’s athletes; then inter-state and national events before ending up in state-run sports schools.
Although these schools are ill-equipped and they face routine challenges that women generally face in society, their endurance skills see them through. Incidentally, most of them subsequently do well in their non-sports careers and lives as well, proving to hundreds of waiting aspirants that sports is a great career option.
Records show an influx of girl athletes in Kerala’s school meets beginning in the eighties. If becoming a nurse was the most commonly cherished career dream of the girls in the hilly villages, thanks to Valsamma-Usha-Shiny trio, running and jumping became a better career option.
Tintu Luka is the latest with that lineage and has both Usha and Shiny in London to cheer for her.