Chandigarh: Legendary athlete PT Usha was the first Indian women’s athlete to make it to the finals of the Olympics. Before her, the closest brush with the podium by an Indian athlete was Milkha Singh (1960 Rome Olympics).
It was heartbreaking for every Indian as she lost a bronze by 1/100th of a second in the women’s 400m hurdles at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. But had the recall starter not called for a restart during the final of the 400m hurdles, PT Usha would have given India its first Olympic medal at that time.
“I had a very good start, and the time for crossing the first hurdle (there are 10 hurdles in the 400m hurdles) was 6.2 seconds. But the recall starter (official) called for a restart after the first hurdle due to some technical error by an athlete running on the seventh lane,” said the legendary athlete.
“When the recall starter blew the whistle and called for a restart, my concentration was broken, and at the starting line during the restart, I was tense, and my body was literally shivering. In the restart, I crossed the first hurdle in 6.9 seconds and was the last one to cross the first hurdle. Gradually, I caught up with the other runners and eventually missed the Olympic medal by 1/100th of a second,” she added.
“Had the recall starter not called for a restart, the momentum that I got in the first start would have landed me in the medal bracket, and it wouldn’t have been a surprise if I had even won a silver in the 1984 Olympics,” recalled the legendary athlete PT Usha, who was in Chandigarh for the opening of the Indian Grand Prix at the newly laid synthetic athletics track at Sector 7 Sports Complex.
“After a comparatively slow burst in the restart, I made up for it and was second after the eighth hurdle, but there was another mistake that I committed at the last moment, which cost me a medal. At the time of the finish line, my leg was the first to cross, and then the shoulders, but I should have pushed my shoulders ahead of my legs at the finish line, and that gap was enough to cost me 1/100th of a second, preventing me from standing on the victory podium. It was due to a lack of exposure for me in the 400m hurdles,” said the country’s sprint queen, who ruled the track for almost two decades.
“These two mistakes, the slow start and not extending my shoulders at the finish line, cost me a medal in the Olympics. At times, I get upset when I remember the 1984 Olympics 400m hurdles final, but it was an error that I can’t rectify. Even after 40 years, the entire race is fresh in my memory, and I recall it step by step,” added Usha, who won 103 medals for the country in a career spanning over two decades.
At 16, she was the youngest Indian sprinter to compete in the Olympics (1980 Moscow).
At that time, the legendary athlete PT Usha competed in the 400m race and made an early exit. A couple of months before the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, on the advice of her coach, she switched to the 400m hurdles.
Going as an underdog in her new event, PT Usha shocked the entire athletics world by reaching the finals. She topped the semi-finals by beating American runner Judi Brown, who later finished second in the final.
Morocco’s Newal El Moutawakel won a gold.
The Indian runner clocked 55.42 seconds but lost a bronze by the narrowest of margins to Romania’s Cristina Cojacoru.
The race earned Usha the distinction of being the first Indian woman athlete to reach an Olympic final.
“I shifted to the 400m hurdles event a couple of months before the Olympics. Before the Los Angeles Games, I had the experience of running in just two 400m hurdle races, which included the official trials. After arriving in America for the Olympics, there was an invitational event in which I participated. So, with just three 400m hurdle races of exposure, I competed in the 1984 Olympics,” recalled PT Usha, who created the new national record in Los Angeles that still stands in her name even after 39 years.
“But I am happy that our athletes now receive better exposure, and its results are evident. Neeraj Chopra won gold in the recently held World Championship, and two other javelin throwers, our 4x400m men’s relay team, made it to the finals,” added the Indian running great.
Usha was born in Koothali in Kozhikode district in Kerala. But she grew up in Payyoli, and because of that, she is also known as Payyoli Express.
In the 1986 Seoul Asian Games, PT Usha won four gold medals (200m, 400m, 400m hurdles, and 4x400m relay) and a silver (100m), earning her the tag of “Golden Girl” and “Sprint Queen of Asia.”
“Seoul was one of my best outings, and now, as the president of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), I expect India to achieve its best-ever medal tally in the 2023 Asian Games. In athletics, I am hoping for the best-ever performance in terms of a medal count,” said PT Usha, who became the first woman president of IOA and is also a member of the Rajya Sabha.