When PT Usha missed the bronze by one-hundredth of a second in the 400-metre hurdles at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, all of Kerala was in agony.

That’s because Usha was the embodiment of Kerala’s sporting ambitions. She was the icon of the Malayali spirit. She was Kerala’s brand ambassador—not just in the realm of athletics or sports, but of all things Keralite. Moreover, her athletic career had a rags-to-riches aura about it: a rural girl from a poor background who sweated it out on the fish-smelling sands of the Payyoli beach to reach the world’s greatest sports arena. Her life was a lesson in hard work, determination, and goal-setting.

Usha’s failure to win that third prize at the Los Angeles Olympics by a whisker, however, brought home to the average Malayali the elusive greatness of the Olympics. Until then, the Games had been a distant thing played out on distant shores by the greatest, the ablest and the best-est. Usha’s ‘defeat,’ which was discussed for months on end across the State, made Olympics a bit more intimated – as if it related to the girl-next-door. Usha had earlier competed in the 1980 Moscow Olympics (and later in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, too), but the missed medal at Los Angeles had the most impact on the public mind.

It was after the Los Angeles Games that athletes and sportspersons in Kerala started dreaming the Olympian dream. The result has been an onrush of schoolchildren into athletics. At the national school games, Kerala won the overall championships year after year after year.

“Usha had a huge impact on children,” says Mercy Kuttan, who won the silver for long jump at the 1982 Asian Games and who currently runs the Mercy Kuttan Athletics Academy in Kochi. “She has been the role model for young athletes in Kerala.”

A number of schools, mostly in the rural areas, emerged as training grounds for athletic talent. For instance, the Koruthodu school is well-known at the national level for producing talented athletes who consistently won top honours at the national school meets. Koruthodu’s legendary coach, Thomas Master, won the Dronacharya award, the country’s topmost coaching honour. The Kakkavayal school in the tribal district of Wayanad moulded several tribal children into athletes. T Gopi, a member of the Indian contingent for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, is a product of Kalavayal.

The focus across the State on track-and-field, which started from 1970s onwards, was reflected in the number of athletes from Kerala.

“Tiny Kerala has always had a fair share of athletes on the Indian Olympic teams,” points out Mercy Kuttan, who is also the Vice-chair of the Kerala State Sports Council. Indicatively, there will be 11 Keralite athletes in Rio.

However, Kuttan is worried that the young generation of athletes is content with just participating in the Olympics. “They need to be focussed on winning,” she said. “Athletes of PT Usha’s generation had the determination and commitment to win.”

She is also worried that Kerala’s long domination at the national-level school meets is receding, with States like Haryana emerging as strong contenders. Parents are not promoting children to shine in athletics as they did earlier. One reason for this is the middle-class parents’ fad for ‘entrance examinations’ (for professional courses) which has dampened the athletic passions of children.