PT Usha: A story of porridge, pickles and an Olympic heartbreak

The queen of Indian track-and-field was a mere crane of the neck away from winning a historic athletics medal for India at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
By Naveen Peter

A second is often insignificant in normal life. It is preceded by the adjective ‘mere’. In athletics though, a second is an eternity and a fraction of that can separate the greatest athletes in the world. Ask PT Usha.

It has been a familiar scene for India at the Olympics. When the legendary Milkha Singh finished fourth, by a tenth of a second, in the 400m final at the 1960 Rome Olympics, the country never thought someone could come closer to winning an athletics medal at the biggest Games on earth.

More than two decades later, on the evening of August 8, 1984, along came PT Usha in another 400m race, to finish fourth, and the margin was heart-breaking.

After some tense moments, PT Usha found out that Cristieana Cojocaru of Romania had beaten her to the 400m hurdles bronze by 1/100th of a second.

The build-up

After an appearance at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, PT Usha made waves at the 1982 Asian Games in New Delhi with silver medals in the 100m and the 200m races.

A year later, at the Asian Championships, Usha would set her first Asian record en route to a gold medal-winning performance in the 400m.

It was after this event that Usha was persuaded to take up the 400m hurdles and though she did not run too many competitive races, expectations were high going into the 1984 Olympics, as PT Usha beat American favourite Judy Brown at an athletics meet in California.

PT Usha (second from right) missed out on an Olympic medal by just 0.01 seconds at Los Angeles 1984.

The final heartbreak

PT Usha was in tremendous form at the Olympics. She finished second in her morning heats, and then put herself firmly in medal contention when she beat Brown for the second time in the semi-finals.

The pressure of expectation and the nerves that accompanied it were evident in the final. The field were called back to their blocks for a restart after Australian Debbie Flintoff, starting next to PT Usha, inadvertently began prematurely.

Running on lane 5, PT Usha was slow off the blocks but recovered well and on the turn, was part of the leading pack of runners.

As many as five runners were in the mix for a medal and PT Usha matched Cristieana Cojocaru stride for stride till the Romanian made that decisive head dip in a photo finish.

Morocco’s Nawal El Moutawakel had led most of the race to win gold while a late surge on the home stretch gave Judy Brown in the outside lane the silver medal.

Payyoli Express, as Usha was popularly called, later admitted that the restart had caught her a bit off-guard and that she could not sustain her energy level on the final stretch of 35 metres, a fact she owes to to a forced diet of porridge and pickles at the Los Angeles Olympics.

Unable to get used to the American foods on offer, Usha had to restrict her diet at the Games.

“I remember it, the pickle we in Kerala call the ‘kadu manga achar’. That and some sliced fruit. I was not accustomed to baked potatoes or half-boiled chicken with soya sauce and other typical American food,” she told Equator Line Magazine years later in an interview.

It was a major heartbreak for an entire nation but for PT Usha, the Olympics had given her one of the proudest moments in her career when she was all of 20.

Making of a legend

Usha was upset after the LA result and then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had a big role to play in her regaining motivation.

“I received a message from Indira Gandhi ji which said, ‘Usha, my daughter, you did very well for the country. Don’t worry, try harder next time, we are all with you.’ That gesture really lifted me,” PT Usha had told The Times of India in an interview.

PT Usha went on to set the tracks ablaze in the next few years, winning golds at the Asian Games and Asian Championships, setting records and was the darling of the crowd wherever she went. 

Usha retired briefly in 1989 but persuaded by husband Srinivas, made a return the next year and went on to mount the podium at multiple events before retiring for good in 2000.

These days, the Padma Shri awardee runs the Usha School of Athletics, an academy in Kerala where she trains the next generation of Indian athletes. She hopes to mentor some of them to an Olympic medal one day. Then life will actually turn a full circle for Usha, arguably India’s most celebrated women track and field athlete yet.