The State of Kerala in the 70s and 80s led a revolution in the drive for total literacy as well as in the field of women’s athletics. This was the golden age when stars like MD Valsamma, Shiny Abraham, PT Usha and others helped India dominate Asian track and field like never before. And among them all, Usha stands out as the greatest. It’s a long way from the tiny village of Payyoli to Los Angeles. But it was a journey that would take Usha less than a decade to complete.
Usha was 12-years-old when her athletics career took off in 1976 as she joined the Sports Division Scheme in Kannur instituted by the Kerala State Sports Council and came under the tutelage of OM Nambiar during a three-year stint. He would be there to guide Usha right through her illustrious career.
Usha made her international debut in the 1980 Pakistan National Games in Karachi where she won four gold medals, including a sprint double. In the New Delhi Asian Games in 1982, she won silver in both the 100 metres and 200 metres. The first major international gold came in the 400 metres at the 1983 Asian Track and Field Meet in Kuwait.
The Soviet-led boycott of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles proved to be a stroke of luck for Usha. Among the many events that were considerably weakened by the absence of these crack athletes were the 400m hurdles with five of the top six performers of the year being part of the boycott.
Usha came second in the first heat. She was just warming up. The second semi-final turned out to be historic for Usha who won in 55.54s. This was not only a Commonwealth record but also the first time an official Indian athlete had won a heat at the Olympics.
In the final, Usha was drawn in lane five for the biggest race of her life. There was a false start as Debbie Flintoff jumped the gun. Usha had started superbly, but the late callback upset her concentration. When the race was re-started she got off the blocks a bit slower. The flow was missing and in the first half she trailed behind, confident that over the last five hurdles she would shoot ahead as was her style.
By the eighth hurdle she had drawn level with the rest of the field except Morocco’s Nawal El-Moutawakil, running in lane three. With her body going stiff, Usha failed to match the challenge of Romanian Cristina Cojocaru over the last few metres and did not have the strength to lunge at the finish.
The announcer first gave the third position to Usha, only to correct it in favour of the Romanian a minute later. It was a photo finish for the bronze and the result was finally announced as: 1. Nawal El Moutawakil (Morocco): 54.61 (Olympic record); 2. Judi Brown (US): 55.20; 3. Cristina Cojocaru (Romania): 55.41; 4. PT Usha (India): 55.42 (Commonwealth record).
Usha would have her moment of glory after Los Angeles, particularly at the Asian track and field meet the next year at Jakarta where she won an amazing five gold and one bronze. She also won four gold — out of a total of five for India — and one silver at the 1986 Seoul Asiad. But in the race that really mattered, she had been denied by a whisker.
Extracted from Great Indian Olympians by Gulu Ezekiel