102 national/international medals, 13 gold medals in Asian Championships and a fourth place finish at the 1984 Olympics, Arjuna award, Padma Shri, Sportsperson of the Century and Millennium! Now imagine a single person winning it all! These are some of the major highlights of a small-town woman from Kerala who had beaten all the odds […]
102 national/international medals, 13 gold medals in Asian Championships and a fourth place finish at the 1984 Olympics, Arjuna award, Padma Shri, Sportsperson of the Century and Millennium! Now imagine a single person winning it all! These are some of the major highlights of a small-town woman from Kerala who had beaten all the odds stacked against her to eventually become a national hero – P.T. USHA! She is undoubtedly the greatest Track & Field athlete India has ever produced.
PT Usha managed to do what no other woman did in India till then. She managed to rally the support and interest of millions of Indians for a sport that was hardly talked about. So much so that, every sports enthusiast was in tears when a 20-year-old P.T Usha narrowly, by 1/100th of a second, missed out on taking home an Olympic medal in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. However, it was soon forgotten by people and not many know the unfortunate story behind this narrow loss and the hardships P.T. Usha had to face before that. Here, we are looking at the incredible journey of the “Queen of the Indian Track & Field” and how she overcame poor infrastructure and almost zero exposure to make the country proud!
How did P.T Usha get into running?
P.T. Usha’s association with the sport started when she was in the 4th standard and her PT sir identified the enthusiasm in her for sports in general along with her ability to run fast. He asked her to run against a champion racer from the same school who was in the 7th standard (the then district champion) just to see how the young Usha fares. To everyone’s surprise, Usha won the race and right then everyone knew that she was a special person. Subsequently, she participated in several competitions like 100m, 200m, 400m, long jump, shot put and many more. She bagged gold medals in all the events she participated at the district and state level. In one such competition in 1979, O.M. Nambiar, a reputed track & field coach in Kerala spotted Usha’s ability and took her under his wings to nurture her into an Olympian. He did it in a year, giving India her youngest Olympian in the shape of a 16-year old lanky girl from Kerala.
Thrown into the fire without any exposure
P.T Usha participated in the 100m event without the international exposure, nourishment or care that other international athletes get. She was as raw as one can be at the international circuit, especially when you compare her to muscular Russian and European fellow racers. The Indian fans back home had no real expectations from the young teenager and expected her to be out of the Olympics in the heats itself. Even Usha herself knew that the competition was way too much for her but she was determined to not finish last in the race. She finished 6th in the race – a huge achievement given her age and the preparation she got before the Olympics. However, it was not in Moscow that she felt defeated but right here in her home country when no one even bothered to talk to her when she came back. Usha still remembers the day clearly, thinking about how the media and public focussed only on winners and neglected the other athletes completely. That was a huge dent in a 16-year old girl’s heart. She was shattered!
The resurgence of the Lioness
The negligence by her own people triggered the champion in her, making her work harder than ever to avoid such a moment in her life again. Even with the lack of a nutritionist, supplements and infrastructure, Usha and her coach ensured that she was in the best possible shape. She participated in the senior inter-state championships in 1981, setting the National Record in both 100m and 200m. On the back of this performance, she entered the 1982 Asian Games, held in New Delhi. Here, she tasted success for the first time in an international event, winning silver medals in both, 100m and 200m. However, the one thing she could not get out of her mind was the Olympics.
She had a good year in 1983 and even added 400m and 400m hurdles in her repertoire. However, a dip in form in 1984 in the shorter sprints meant that she and her coach decided to focus solely on 400m hurdles for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. However, Usha experienced yet another episode of lacking quality exposure, infrastructure and support from the administration. There was no competition for her in the country as she was winning all her races with gaps of 25-40m between her and the second best runner. She had no running partner. She had no one to take care of her body. She had just one single official race under her belt before the final Olympic qualification round that took place in New Delhi during which she won the qualification race comfortably and also set the national record.
Just ponder over the lack of exposure an Olympian has before facing the stalwarts from around the world – and we expect a medal from them! Knowing that it’s difficult to perform in such cases, coach Nambiar entered her in a small pre-Olympics tournament so that she got at least some exposure before the final event. Here, she defeated Judi Brown from USA (the eventual silver medallist at the Olympics) with ease, which ignited supreme confidence in her. This performance infused a lot of belief in her to get that elusive gold medal that India has been seeking for decades in a Track & Field event.
The Tale of the ‘Almost’
P.T Usha qualified through the heats and semi-final comfortably and became the first woman athlete from India to qualify for the final of a Track & Field event. This in itself was history but P.T. Usha was determined to make the most out of it by having a podium finish. Her coach had told her to get the best possible start and finish the first hurdle in 6.2 seconds. Though she actually did get an incredible start, the racers were pulled back because of a false start by one of her fellow racers. This incident made the young 20-year old anxious and jittery. She lost her calm and ended up having her worst start at that Olympics, finishing the first hurdle at 6.9 seconds. However, a determined Usha then ran her heart out and came to 2nd position by the 7th hurdle. She kept pushing herself but maybe at the wrong phases of the race and could not make her body give that final push. She finished the race 4th, missing out on India’s first Track & Field Olympic medal by 1/100th of a second! She had the leg in front but the Romanian racer, Cristeana Cojocaru, stuck her chest out to narrowly finish ahead of Usha.
‘Almost’ won the race! That word ‘almost’ still sticks with P.T Usha and ever since that she only had one dream of giving India a medal from the Track & Field event. Thereafter, she won several accolades in the Asian Games, Commonwealth games and other international events but could not replicate or better the performance of 1984 Olympics in any other Olympics she participated. In the 1985 Asian Track & Field Championship, she won 5 gold medals and 1 bronze medal, a record for the most number of medals by an athlete in a single championship. In 1986 Asian Games, she won 4 gold medals and 1 silver medal. She retired in 2000, sadly, without achieving her dream.
Life after retirement
Even with all of the accolades P.T Usha received in her life, she could not get over the fact that her trophy and medal cabinet did not have the Olympics medal in it. She promised to give India an Olympics medal in the track & field event and hence started her academy ‘Usha School of Athletics’ in 2002. She has managed to produce many national and international athletes in different age categories since then. She believes that within the next three Olympics there will surely be an Indian medallist in a track event and continues to build careers of young aspiring athletes.
What can we learn from this incredible journey?
There’s a lot to learn from P.T Usha’s incredible journey for everyone in the country. Aspiring athletes, the Sports Authority of India and every living person can learn something invaluable from this journey. The aspiring athletes need to learn how to harness all their power and talent to reach the goal they aim to achieve. Usha’s small miscalculation of running too fast in the middle and not being able to accelerate in the last stretch of the race teaches us how important it is to be calculative in your craft. The nervousness she went through before the restart of her final gave her a poor start, which probably cost her a podium finish. We can learn to be strong no matter happens and focus solely on your goal.
However, one of the biggest things to learn from P.T Usha’s amazing journey is the lack of nutrition and guidance provided by the Sports Authority of India to bolster her chances to win the elusive medal for India. If the administration would have done everything for this genius on the field, India would have long gotten its first track & field medal. The authority must now concentrate on giving such amenities to not just the top athletes but also at the grass-roots level. Only such important changes can bring about a champion Olympian from the country. No one is born an Olympic medallist, we have to nurture one!