PT Usha on why her Olympic debut put her back to primary school

PT Usha made her Olympics debut at the age of 16 in Moscow. She finished sixth in the 100m, 200m heats.

By Rahul Venkat

For India, PT Usha is synonymous with the Los Angeles 1984 Olympics, where the sprinter just fell short of an historic bronze medal by just 1/100th of a second in the 400m hurdles.

However, the Indian track queen had her first taste of the Games four years prior in Moscow as a 16-year-old, which still is the record for the youngest Indian athlete in an Olympics contingent.

“Actually, I came to know that fact only after the completion of the Olympics,” PT Usha told The Times of India in a recent interview. “During the Olympics, I felt lonely because everyone else was much senior to me.”

Having spent most of her life till then in Kerala, PT Usha only spoke Malayalam and hence could only converse with basketball coach Makkolath Rajan, who was the only other Keralite at the Moscow 1980 Games.

However, her strength throughout the 1980 Olympics was the chief athletics coach, the late Joginder Singh Saini, who took PT Usha under his wing.

“JS Saini sir always motivated me and he was the one who gave me the confidence to run well in the 100m heats, where I finished sixth,” said the ‘Payyoli Express.’

“I never even wanted to run the 200m heats but he believed in my abilities and pushed me to run, where I ended sixth again.”

PT Usha finished sixth in both the 100m and 200m heats at Moscow 1980. Photo: PT Usha/Facebook

Her events aside, the entire experience in itself was overwhelming for PT Usha, who had never flown out to take part in a competition of the magnitude of the Olympics.

“My first flight from Delhi to Moscow, wearing synthetic spikes for the first time, seeing how big everyone was made me nervous and I felt like a student in primary school,” she admitted.

“But that experience was a great feeling.”

Four years later, PT Usha would be the one standing tallest in the Indian contingent.

The Indian track queen had a grand build-up en route to her second Olympics. Usha made waves with her 100m and 200m silver medals at the 1982 Asian Games and a silver and gold in the same events at the 1983 Asian Championships.

Her natural talent in the 400m hurdles was discovered soon after as she beat American favourite Judy Brown King in a pre-Olympics event at California and did so again in the heats at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

However, King beat PT Usha in the semi-finals to set up a pulsating final, where the Indian sprinter provided one of India’s most memorable moments on track at the Olympics.