Best of PT Usha: From Los Angeles to Seoul, a zip, zap, zoom of a career
Pilavullakandi Thekkeparambil Usha, or PT Usha, is, perhaps, best known for her incredible run at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.
As agonising as missing out on an Olympic medal by a mere 1/100th of a second was, LA is often considered the coronation of India’s ‘queen of the track and field’.
PT Usha’s reign, though, reached far beyond the City of Angels.
I didn’t just run one event at one championship and win a medal. It was not a flash in the pan. – PT Usha.
Indeed, it wasn’t.
Throughout her illustrious career, India’s Golden Girl won over a hundred international medals, set several national records and was one of the most dominant Asian athletes of her time.
Here, we take a look at some of PT Usha’s highlights from a career that defined her legacy in Indian sports.
1982 Asian Games – Payyoli Express leaves the station
A dominant force in the national level track and field championships from a young age, Usha made her Summer Games debut at the 1980 Moscow Olympics and became India’s youngest Olympian at 16 – a record which still stands.
The youngster’s Olympics debut wasn’t quite noteworthy, but it was evident that success would come.
Two years later at the 1982 Asian Games in New Delhi, an 18-year-old Usha would sprint into millions of Indian hearts, winning two individual silver medals in the 100m and 200m races.
The Indian runner clocked 11.95 seconds in the 100m to finish behind the Philippines’ Lydia de Vega, the two becoming intense rivals for continental honours.
Usha’s 22.32 seconds in the 200m, meanwhile, was just a tenth behind Japan’s gold medallist Hiromi Isozaki.
With Doordarshan, India’s state broadcaster, broadcasting in colour for the first time at those Asian Games in Delhi, Indians had a new hero to celebrate – one who would continue to spread the colours of joy for years to come.
With her first major international medals under her belt, the Payyoli Express was on course.
1984 Olympics – Legend born through heartbreak
On the back of her Asian Games success and a stellar showing at the 1983 Asian Athletics Championships in Kuwait, Usha was one of India’s biggest hopes heading into the Los Angeles Games. She was just 20.
Having watched Shiny Wilson in the 800m become the first Indian woman to reach the semi-finals of an Olympic event, the onus was on Usha to deliver and she did not disappoint.
Representing India in the 400m hurdles, Usha cruised through to the final, clocking a new Commonwealth record of 55.54 seconds in the semi-final.
She lowered that mark to 55.42 seconds in the final but fell agonisingly short of a medal, losing out on bronze to Cristieana Cojocaru by just one hundredth of a second.
Things, however, could have turned out very differently if not for a restart prompted by Australian Debbie Flintoff’s premature start to the race.
In the initial start, the Indian got away superbly and crossed her first hurdle in 6.33 seconds – Usha’s best timing in Los Angeles.
But after the false start, Usha was slower away from the blocks. She still managed to recover and go toe-to-toe with Cojocaru for third, but the Romanian edged it on the dip in a photo finish.
Though the race is considered to be PT Usha’s best in her career, it was a heart-wrenching loss for the athlete herself.
At the age of 20 missing a medal at the Olympics, that too by one-hundredth of a second, was really unimaginable.
It took a special message from then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to lift Usha's spirits. Through the heartbreak, the legend of PT Usha only rose.
1985 Asian Championships – On the golden track
The next couple of years saw what was, perhaps, the most ruthless domination of the Asian track and field stage by any athlete.
First up, the 1985 Asian Athletics Championships in Jakarta where Usha swept all four of her individual events (100m, 200m, 400m and 400m hurdles) and bagged a gold in the 4x400m relay.
She also took bronze in the 4x100m relay, a haul which remains unmatched in Indian athletics.
Incredibly, she ran more than a dozen races, including heats, semi-finals and finals, in under five days which her five golds coming in the space of a mere three.
On one day, I ran three races. After a race, I would run to the bathroom and have a shower and be ready for the next race. There was nothing fancy I followed as a routine. Run, rest, have a wash, and run again
Usha even beat her long-time rival Lydia de Vega to bag the 100m gold, clocking 11.64 seconds in the final with the Filipino in third. She was actually well down on her semi-final run where she crossed the line in a new national record of 11.39.
She is still remembered in Jakarta for those performances and a mention of her name often warrants discounts from local markets.
“It is a nice feeling that people remember you fondly and with respect for something which happened in 1985,” Usha recently recounted.
1986 Asian Games – Domination at Seoul
The 1986 Asian Games in the South Korean capital Seoul followed a similar story.
Just as the ‘Usha, Usha’ chants had reverberated through the Senayan Madya Stadium in Jakarta a year earlier, the same cry rang out around what would become the main stadium for the 1988 Olympic Games.
She had to settle for silver in the 100m as de Vega retained her Asian Games crown, but the Indian won gold in the 200m, 400m, 400m hurdles and 4x400m relay events.
The schedule was as gruelling as Jakarta, but there was no stopping the queen. She even ran three races within a span of 110 minutes during the event.
“I have to do it for the country and for our medals tally. It’s not too much of a strain except that I have no time to warm up properly,” she had said.
Her long-time coach OM Nambiar, however, later noted the back-to-back races did take a toll on the Indian sprinter but that she could never say no for her country and her people.
1989 Asian Championships – Coming full circle
After a heel injury prevented her making any finals at the Seoul 1988 Olympic Games, questions were being asked as to whether India’s track and field queen still had the speed to rule.
Heading into the 1989 Asian Athletics Championships in New Delhi, PT Usha had much to prove to doubters and to herself. She also noted it would be her last hurrah.
“I will retire after the 1989 Asian Track and Field meet in New Delhi with some medals to silence my critics,” she declared.
The 1983 Arjuna Award winner did just that in regal style in the city she had announced her arrival on the international stage.
Usha claimed individual golds in the 200m, 400m and 400m hurdles, and took silver just behind China’s Zhang Caihua in the 100m.
She also helped India clinch gold in the 4x400m relay and silver in the 4x100m to bring the curtain down on a magnificent career, or so we thought.
Usha soon reversed her decision to retire and went on to win several more accolades in the years to follow, including an elusive 4x100m gold at the 1998 Asian Championships aged 34.
But age and injuries meant she never quite reached the heights she did in those golden years in the 1980s.