Sometimes in sports a loss can be as much a source of inspiration as a victory. P T Usha’s historic run in the 400 m hurdles final in the 1984 Olympics is one such loss. Usha may have lost the bronze by one-hundredth of a second, but she galvanised an entire generation to take to track and field to be the next P.T. Usha and achieve that which she missed so narrowly.
Usha was India’s brightest hope for a medal in the 1984 Olympics. She had already made history on the road to the 400m hurdles final by becoming the first Indian athlete to win in an Olympic semifinal. She beat the US champion Judi Brown and clocked 55.54 seconds. Carrying the expectations of an entire nation on her shoulders, Usha ran a magnificent race in the final, clocking 55.42 seconds, but lost the bronze to Cristina Cojacoru of Romania by the narrowest of margins. Nevertheless, she had the distinction of being the first Indian woman to reach an Olympic final.
Born on June 27, 1964, in Kuttali, Kerala, Pilavullakandi Thekkeraparambil Usha was the first and biggest woman superstar in Indian athletics. She did not allow the disappointment of the Olympic loss to impede her on her road to greatness. In the 1985 Asian Championships in Indonesia she won six medals (5 gold and one bronze) – a feat not yet matched by any Indian athlete. In the 1986 Asian Games in Seoul, the ‘Payyoli Express’ as she was nicknamed, won four golds and a silver. In the 1989 Asian Championships, Usha had a six-medal haul – four gold and two silver.
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In a career spanning nearly two decades, Usha won four gold medals, and seven silver at the Asian Games, and 23 medals at the Asian Championship, including 14 gold medals. In her day, she was the undisputed “Queen of Indian Track and Field”. After her retirement she opened the Usha School of Athletics, where she grooms budding athletes to fulfill her dream of “seeing an Indian sprinter standing on the Olympic podium.”