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Padma Shri for OM Nambiar: The guiding force behind the 'Payyoli Express'

Nambiar’s contribution to Indian sports was finally recognized as he was conferred with the Padma Shri on the 72nd Republic Day

By Samrat Chakraborty ·

When the list of Padma awardees for 2021 was announced, seven people from the field of sports were honoured with Padma Shri. However, the name of O Madhavan Nambiar would have stood out among them.

The recognition for the veteran athletics coach, 89 years of age, was a just reward for his selfless contribution to Indian athletics. If anything, many would feel it should have come earlier.

An athlete himself, OM Nambiar received national recognition as the coach who spotted and moulded one of India’s greatest athletes in PT Usha.

As he basks in the glory of a well-deserved accolade, let’s take a look at the life and career of one of the greatest names in coaching India has seen.

Air Force background

Born in a small village near Payyoli in Kannur, Kerala (incidentally the native place of PT Usha as well), Nambiar took to athletics naturally. He was a champion athlete during his college days at Guruvayurappan College in Kozhikode. His college principal was the one who advised Nambiar to join the armed forces and continue his athletic career.

Taking that advice to heart, Nambiar would embark on a journey that changed his life around and almost brought India an Olympic medal.

He was selected to the Air Force from the selection camp at Tambaram, Chennai, in 1955. He would go on to achieve success in national meets, representing the services. However, he never represented India internationally.

Turn to coaching

Unable to achieve his dream of representing the nation, he turned to coaching after his career as an athlete came to an end. Nambiar wanted to live his dream through his proteges.

He completed his coaching diplomas from the National Institute of Sports in Patiala and started training the Services athletes.

Then a chance encounter with Colonel Goda Varma Raja would see his destiny take a turn. G V Raja, a pioneer of sports in the state of Kerala, invited him to come to Kerala and hone the athletes from the state.

To work in his home state was a chance he could not turn down and Nambiar took charge as a coach at the Kerala Sports Council in 1970.

नंबियार ने पीटी ऊषा को 14 साल की उम्र में पशिक्षण दिया था

Spotting PT Usha

OM Nambiar is a name synonymous with PT Usha and that incredible teacher-student relationship kicked-off in 1976.

Nambiar was with the Kannur sports division back then and he spotted Usha at a prize distribution ceremony after the selection trials for the division, held at Thiruvananthapuram.

“What impressed me at first sight about Usha was her lean shape and fast walking style. I knew she could become a very good sprinter,” Nambiar would reminisce in an interview with Rediff.com in 2000.

Usha was selected and started training with Nambiar. There began a partnership that would bring India laurels galore in international events.

Olympic heartbreak

Usha started to make the country sit up and take notice quickly after coming under Nambiar’s wings.

She won six medals, including four golds, in the inter-state meet for juniors in 1978 at Kollam. She continued her rise under Nambiar’s guidance and lit up the 1979 National Games and 1980 National inter-state meet, setting multiple records.

She won two silver medals in the 1982 Asian Games (100m and 200m) and won gold at the Asian Championships in Kuwait City in 1983.

But it was the heartbreak of missing gold at the 1982 Asian Games, held in New Delhi, that saw Usha and Nambiar chalk out a strategy for the Los Angeles 1984 Olympics.

Nambiar advised Usha to take up 400m hurdles in the aftermath of those silver medals at the expense of angering her fellow athlete from Kerala, MD Valsamma. But Nambiar was adamant that Usha should run the 400m hurdles.

The result was that the ‘Payyoli Express’ went into Los Angeles 1984 as a strong medal contender after acing the meets before the Olympics. After a false start, she would finish fourth in a photo-finish by a heart-wrenching margin of 1/100th of a second.

Nambiar would later go on to state in an interview with Mathrubhumi,

“There was a restart after a foul start by an Australian athlete. That cost her. Usha could not start well at the restart. Even then, I thought she won the bronze but the photo finish showed she was fourth. I remember falling on the track in disappointment. I have no idea how long I stayed on that floor.”

PT Usha with her coach OM Nambiar (Photo: PT Usha)

The first ‘Dronacharya’

The disappointment of 1984 was a wound that never healed properly in Nambiar’s heart. But that did not stop him and Usha from pursuing excellence.

It was no surprise to see Nambiar, renowned as one of the best athletic coaches at that time, was selected as one of the three recipients of the first-ever Dronacharya award (highest recognition for coaches in India) in 1985.

The 1986 Asian Games in Jakarta was even more successful for Usha and Nambiar. She won 4 gold medals and a silver from the meet.

Search for next Usha and retirement

In 1990, OM Nambiar resigned from the Kerala Sports Council and joined the Sports Authority of India (SAI).

But he would return to Kerala in the 2000s in a bid to unearth the next Usha. He moulded and guided many promising athletes at that time like Beena Augustine, Sukumari, Sheeba etc.

However, it was a search that would never be fulfilled. Nambiar himself acknowledges that the kind of sacrifices Usha made was rare to find.

He would go on to coach in various low profile stints before retiring permanently and settling down in his hometown. However, with the Government of India recognising his contributions with a Padma award, OM Nambiar will be quietly satisfied.