Vandana Rao — The sprinter who set milestones for Indian women athletes at 1984 Olympics
At the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the women's quartet of PT Usha, MD Valsamma, Shiny Wilson and Vandana Rao had set a milestone for Indian women athletes.
A year after Kapil's Devils won the Cricket World Cup, Indian women athletes achieved a few historic milestones at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
It was probably for the first time, the names of Indian women athletes, not men, were decorating the headlines of the newspapers in the 'track and field' events. While many have remembered the extraordinary feats of PT Usha, Shiny Abrahan Wilson, MD Valsamma, another woman track-and-field athlete who is forgotten in the annals of India's sporting history is Vandana Rao, who was one of the big names among the women to have gained the limelight. Apart from Usha, Valsamma, and Wilson, Rao was a part of the women's 4x400m relay team that reached the finals and finished 7th.
Born in Karnataka, Vandana hailed from an orthodox Brahmin family where sports was barely encouraged. However, her fate took a complete turn when she stepped up to the track during her PE class in class eight. She surprised everyone with her performance as she broke the state record in her school competition. Her teachers were so astounded by her performance that they made her run again and she silenced their doubts for the second time on that same day.
"I had never run before that day. It was a compulsory physical education test. When I ran the 100m distance, the timings were better than everyone. My teachers were so surprised, I had to run again. Even then also I clocked the same timing. That is when I stepped into the shoe of an athlete," says Vandana in an exclusive conversation with The Bridge.
Her sports teacher was so impressed that she repeatedly visited Vandana's father at their house and pursued him to let her daughter work on her talent. The repeated plea was finally heard as Vandana's father agreed to let her train.
Vandana began training vigorously, becoming one of Karnataka's as well as the nation's finest female track and field athletes. She, along with Usha, Valsamma and Wilson, formed the legendary 1984 quartet who became shining stars of Indian athletics which changed the course of 'track and fields' event forever.
"I started competing at the Taluk level, and then the district level, where I won multiple competitions. From there, I was given a place to participate in the national level. In the Madras nationals, I competed in 100m race and there I won a gold medal. This was when I was called up for the national camp," said Vandana.
In 1982, Vandana was selected for the Asian Games to run in the 100m race. Despite being a 100m and 200m champion, Vandana was steered to compete in 400m category after the Asian Games camp. With her nose to the ground, she took up the challenge and won a national level tournament in the 400m category at Jamshedpur in 1983. She was ecstatic and was convinced her win would secure her a place in the team for the 1983 Asian Track & Field Games.
Her hopes were crushed when at the last minute, she was dropped from the contingent. So deep was her disappointment that Vandana rushed back home, leaving everything behind, refusing to hit the track ever again.
At a time when Vandana had given up on herself, her father came to her rescue. Over the years, Vandana's father became her biggest supporter, encouraging her. And, at the lowest point of her career, he was the shoulder she leaned on. Refusing to accept her decision, her father pushed her to head back and try again.
Vandana returned to the track with a bang. After intense training, she was chosen to run the 400 meters at the 1984 Olympics, just a year after being dropped from the Asian Track & Field Games. Vandana, together with P.T. Usha, Shiny Wilson, M.D. Valsamma, formed the historic quartet that put Indian women on the map in athletic history.
At the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, Vandana and her peers entered the Women's 4x400m relay heats. On 11th August 1984, these unique women set an Asian record of 3:32.49 seconds after they finished last among the seven teams in the final, the only team to make it to the summit round in the 4x400m relay, a landmark in Indian sports. On the same day, at that very moment, they also set a precedent for women in Indian athletics, for every young girl who watched them cross the finish line, who aspired to be there one day.
India didn't secure a medal at the 1984 Olympics, but the quartet showcased the ability of women to champion in sports, battering centuries of stereotypes and voices that said they could not.
From then on, Vandana kept going - qualifying at 7th place at the 1987 Athletics World Championships and then again at 7th place at the 1988 Olympic Games. This fearless, young woman kept going, even with injured hamstrings and a back injury, attempting every race possible, leaving behind shattered fragments of inequality and a legacy for future runners. Her accolades led to her receiving the Arjuna Award for outstanding achievements in sports and the Karnataka Rajyosava Award in 1984.
Vandana today leads a simple life in Mumbai, married to hockey Olympian Joaquim Carvalho while working as a Tour Manager for SOTC. "I am ecstatic about India's performance at the Tokyo Olympics. Breaking the 100-year-old medal drought in athletics was a sheer moment of joy. Indian sprinters, though they did not win any medal, they put up a valiant show, and I hope they will gain new heights in the coming days," concludes Vandana.
Vandana is the only sprinter among the quartet to have not been bestowed with a Padma award by the Indian government. A petition on change.org has been started to assure she is nominated for the Padma awards in the coming day. You can also sign the petition here to remind the government about the forgotten hero of Indian athletics.