Shiny Wilson, who participated in four consecutive Olympics from 1984, is India's most successful athlete after 'Golden Girl' P T Usha. Though Usha also participated in as many Games between 1980 and 1996, she missed the one in 1992 at Barcelona owing to injury.
The former middle distance ace discussed the chances of long jumper Anju Bobby George, another in a long list of successful women athletes from Kerala, at the Athens Games as she went down memory lane with Shobha Warrier. Excerpts:
With the Olympics on do you think of the days when you represented India?
Of course, how can I forget my first Olympics? The ultimate dream of any athlete is to participate in an Olympic Games. So you can imagine how excited I was when I was selected to go to Los Angeles when I was just 18. It was my performance of 2 minutes 49 seconds in the 800 metres at the National meet, which was better than the Asian Games record, that got me a ticket to Los Angeles. When the news about my selection came I didn't know how to react; I was that elated.
Myself, Usha, M.D.Valsamma and Vandana Rao started our journey together. Geeta Zutshi, who was the Asian Games gold medalist, was training in the United States itself. We went by an Indian Airlines flight via Dubai, stayed in New York for a day and then proceeded to Los Angeles.
I was awestruck when I saw the Olympic village for the first time. Till then I had not seen a village where even the track to practice was inside. We used to practice daily there under the guidance of [Joginder Singh] Saini Sir.
I still remember the kind of food they served there: chicken and ice creams of all varieties and lots and lots of fruits. In those days, in none of the camps were we served such good food, and I ate as if I had not seen chicken or ice cream or fruits before! I was also very young! Whenever Saini Sir caught me eating lots of chicken, he would tease me, 'Only Shiny has no problem with the food'. Though we carried lots of pickles with us I was not much bothered about that because I simply loved what was available there.
Were you nervous before your event, the 800 metres?
I was so nervous and tense the previous night that I could not even close my eyes. I did not eat anything that night. I do not know how many times I read the Bible and prayed to the image of Jesus Christ that I carried with me.
I was tense even when I was doing the warm-up and jogging. Only when I stood there waiting for the gun to go I was no more tense.
I ran and the result was my best timing 2 minutes 46 seconds! I was selected for the semi-finals. I didn't know what had happened. All the Malayali journalists ran to me and congratulated me. It was they who told me that I was the first Indian woman athlete to qualify for the semi-finals in the Olympics. I can only say I was very, very happy.
How did the semi-finals go?
The semi-finals were on the very next day, and I did not have the experience to run on two consecutive days. My legs were paining badly when I started running. I was not sad at all when I lost the semi-finals. Qualifying for the semi-finals itself was good enough for me because I was not expecting such a result.
How did you feel when you watched Usha lose the bronze in the 400 metres hurdles?
We were all there to cheer her, and, actually, we all thought she had won the bronze. When we came to know that she lost in the photo-finish we were terribly sad; Usha was also inconsolable. That was the first time the 400 metres hurdles was introduced in the Olympics.
When was the 4x400 metres relay, in which you people created history, held?
It was one of the last events, and all of us were very fresh. Much to our pleasant surprise we reached the final with a timing of 3:32 seconds, which was the Asian record and one of the best timings in those days. Imagine, till then we had not won any Asian medal, and there we were clocking the best Asian timing!
Myself and Usha ran excellent races. It was just great! Of course, in the 1986 Asian Games we won the gold medal.
Some French newspapers wrote about me running the 800 and 400 metres relay quite well. It was such a shock for everyone there in the US to see Indian girls in an athletics final. Just before that Usha had narrowly missed the medal. Anyway, it was a great Olympics for all of us girls.
How was the reception when you reached India?
When we landed in Delhi there were many people to receive us. I booked a train ticket to go back home. When I was about to leave, I was told that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi wanted to meet all of us. Since I had to catch the train I didn't go. There was nobody to tell me that I should go and meet her. As Usha and Valsamma were going by flight, and they also had personal coaches to advice them, they met the Prime Minister.
I still remember what happened at the Trivandrum airport later. The Kerala government wanted to give us a reception at the airport after Usha and Valsamma reached. So I was also asked to reach there and be with them. The Chief Minister and the Sports Minister also were there, and there was a very huge crowd waiting. In a midi skirt and t-shirt I might have looked like a school girl! As I was walking towards Usha and Valsamma a police officer pushed me away asking, 'what are you doing here?' I got so upset that I ran away crying. Soon the minister came to console me. It became such a big issue that the next day's papers carried it as big news on the front page. Today, when I think about all that, I feel like laughing.
Are you not the only Indian athlete who participated in four Olympic Games?
Yes. I could do it for four consecutive Games. Usha also was there for four Olympics but there was a break in between, and then she didn't participate in the Atlanta Olympics although she was there. She was injured.
What do you remember about the 1988 Olympics?
It was in Seoul. Only Usha, Mercy Kuttan, and myself were selected. The officials didn't want to send a relay team to Seoul. Vandana Rao, Vandana Shanbag and Ashwini Nachappa met Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. He said the relay team, which won the Asian Games gold, should go. After our successful performance at the Asian Games, he and Sonia Gandhi had given us a good reception.
Even though I had by then bettered my timing to 2:32 seconds, I did not qualify for the semi-finals. I was 18th in the heats. Competition was very tough, and I was not in good form. In the relay also we performed badly.
In the 1992 Barcelona Olympics only two people were selected to the athletics team: Bahadur Prasad (5000m) and myself (800m). I still cherish the Barcelona Olympics because I was selected as the captain of the Indian contingent. Everybody was surprised to see an Indian lady in sari leading the team and carrying the flag. It was one of the best moments in my entire career as an athlete. As I entered the stadium with the flag in my hand, and when they announced 'India', I cannot explain what I felt; I still get goose pimples when I think of that moment. It is a great, great feeling to hear your country's name when you are carrying the flag. I cannot express the feeling in words .
I broke the national record, clocking 2:19seconds, but that was not good enough to reach the semis.
Was Atlanta a good experience?
I was in great form when I started from India. I was hopeful of reaching the final. In the SAF games I even clocked under two minutes. But when we reached Atlanta I started getting a slight pain in my legs. So I was asked not to run the 800 metres. Atlanta was the most disappointing experience of my life.
You are now a National selector. How do you assess the Indian athletics contingent?
I hope all of them come into form. But luck also plays a major factor. If luck is with Anju [George], and she does not have many foul jumps, then she can sure win a medal.
I remember having seen Anju at your place when I came to interview you once. Do you know her for a very long time?
She studied staying at my father's younger brother's house. She was studying in a sports school there. My uncle was the Physical Education teacher in the school. So you can say I know her from the time she was in the eighth standard. Because she was very tall my uncle used to say she could achieve a lot.
Later when she came for the camps she used to follow me everywhere. Whenever she was here [in Chennai] she used to stay with me. She is more like a family member, a sister to me. Whenever journalists would come to interview me they would meet her. The Malayala Manorama reporters used to tease her that they would take her interview too!
I must say it is only because of her husband Bobby George that she has achieved so much now. Otherwise, she was such a lazy girl who was more interested in watching films and playing with kids. She also never used to go for practice regularly. She was not at all serious about sports then. In fact, Wilson [Shiny's husband] used to tease her for not winning any medals though she was so tall. I would give full credit to Bobby for what Anju has achieved now.
Did you feel hurt when you were not invited to carry the Olympic torch when it came to India?
Yes, I felt very bad at that moment. But when they did not call Usha or V Bhaskaran, who was the captain of the hockey team that last won a gold medal at the Olympics, how could they call me? I come only after them. But I feel they should have called us all. What they did was not right at all.
Photograph: SREERAM SELVARAJ