PT Usha – India's Greatest Sports Woman?

As a pioneering great among Indian sportswomen PT Usha stands alone. The Sainas and the Sanias, the Malleswaris and the Mary Koms would come later but it was Usha who proved that Indian women had it in them to excel on the international stage. Until she came on the scene Indian women shone only at the Asian level but could not make the transition to the international level. Usha changed all that and over the last 30 years Indian sportswomen have even shone on the biggest stage of all – the Olympics.

It is a long way from the tiny village of Payyoli to the sprawling and ultra modern metropolis of Los Angeles. But that was the journey that Usha made and her story serves as an inspiration to every Indian. Kerala has proved to be in the forefront of Indian athletics and in the 70s and 80s sportswomen like Usha, MD Valsamma and Shiny Wilson kept the Indian flag flying in Asian track and field meets. But Usha was easily the stand out performer and she had her sights set much higher.

Fortunately as a teenager she met OM Nambiar who emerged as her coach and mentor and guided her through her illustrious career. Nambiar knew Usha’s strengths and predicted success for her at the New Delhi Asiad in 1982. Sure enough his ward obliged by with a silver medal in both the 100 and 200 metres. Lydia de Vega of the Philippines took gold in the 100 in 11.76 seconds while Usha clocked 11.95. The 200 metres gold went to Japan’s Hiromi Isozaki in 24.22 seconds while Usha had a timing of 24.32 seconds.

From then on Nambiar and Usha’s sights were firmly on the 1984 Olympics. But over the next year there was to be a major change in Usha’s pet event. She had started out as a promising sprinter but in 1983 was plagued by injuries. On the advice of Nambiar she made the switch to concentrate on 400 metre hurdles for the Los Angeles Olympics. This would be the first time the race would be held for women at the Olympics and Usha had limited experience in the event. But she decided to go ahead and train for it.

The Soviet-led boycott of the Los Angeles proved to be a stroke of luck for Usha. Among the many events that were weakened by the absence of crack athletes were the 400 metres hurdles with five of the top six performers of the year being part of the boycott. First indications that Usha may actually be in the running for something big came at the Olympic trials at New Delhi where she won with a world class time of 55.7 seconds. The favourite for the gold at Los Angeles was America’s Judi Brown.

But Usha warmed up perfectly for the Olympics when she won a race in Inglewood (California) in 55.9 seconds beating Australia’s Debbie Flintoff one of the world’s leading runners. At Los Angeles in the first heat of the 400 metre hurdles Usha with a time of 56.81 seconds was second to Judi Brown who won the race clocking 55.97 seconds. In the semifinal Usha created a sensation winning with a time of 55.54 seconds. This was not only a Commonwealth record but also the first time an Indian athlete had won a heat in the Olympics.

Usha overtook Brown and Flintoff at the final hurdle as she unleashed a tremendous burst of speed that left her rivals behind. Usha later recalled ``The video screen replayed the my semifinal three times and each time I felt a tingling sensation. Having come from behind to overhaul someone like Judi Brown gave me the confidence of doing better in the final. With some success over the first five hurdles I felt confident of finishing the race in around 55 seconds. A medal seemed a certainty to me as I walked out of the arena.’’ Indeed not since the legendary Milkha Singh made it to the final of the 400 metres at Rome in 1960 had an Indian athlete looked like being a medal prospect.

Usha suddenly found the world sporting media’s attention focused on her with most – including Brown - expressing astonishment that a woman athlete was doing India proud! There was no race the day before the final and this gave Usha time to rest and also for the hockey team to drop by and wish her all the best just as all of India was doing back home. The hockey team had been eliminated form medal contention by then and it was the ``Payyoli Express’’ alone who could salvage some pride for India.

The pressure on her was intense. Usha was drawn in lane five for the biggest race of her life. Flintoff was in lane six, Brown in eight and Romania’s Cristina Cojocaru in two. There was a false start as Flintoff jumped the gun. Usha had started off the blocks superbly but the late call back upset her concentration. When the race was re- started she got off the block a bit slower. The flow was missing and in the the first half she trailed behind fully confident however of making up over the last five hurdles for that was her style.

By the eighth hurdle Usha had drawn level with the rest of the field except Morocco’s Nawal El Moutawakil running in lane three. In the last few metres Usha failed to match the challenge of Cojocaru and with her body going stiff she did not have the strength to lunge at the tape 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). Milkha Singh had lost a medal 24 years before by a one tenth of a second; Usha by one hundredth.

She had paid the price for staying back at the start of the race and then failing to lunge at the end. Usha admitted ``I should have jerked by head and lunged. But when did I run a race in India where I had to bring myself to come first’’ Milkha was an eye witness to the race and understood Usha’s pain better than anyone else. Usha would have her moment of glory after LA particularly at the Asian track and field meet the following year at Jakarta where she won an amazing five gold and one bronze and also performed admirably at the Seoul Asian Games in 1986. But in the race that really mattered she had been denied by a whisker.