HER HAIR IN a tight, low bun, face under strain from the sun, and all of 21, Usha took to lane 5 for the 400m hurdles at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. “P.T. ‘You-sha’,” said the American commentator, “is a lady that some people think can win this race, from India.”
She did not. She missed out on bronze by one hundredth of a second, in perhaps the most replayed moment in Indian athletics.
It’s a story often told and retold—how a false start could have unnerved her, or how, had she pushed her chest out at the last second, or millisecond, she could have stood at the podium. It was, undoubtedly, the most famous moment of Usha’s career.
But, for her most dominant moment, one has to travel a year forward. The event—the Asian Athletics Championships. The venue—Jakarta, Indonesia. The mission—domination. Of a possible six gold medals, Usha won five. And, a bronze. It was, and still is, one of the most dominant performances by any track athlete at a single international meet. And, perhaps, one that doesn’t get talked about as often as it should.
As Usha returns to the same city in a few weeks, this time as a coach at the Asian Games, THE WEEK travelled to her athletics school in Kinalur, about an hour from Kozhikode, to talk about the Jakarta conquest.
We reached the Usha School of Athletics at about 7am. The setting was breathtaking and the contrast striking. The thick mist, wild and untamed, rolled down towards Usha’s rule-bound and rigid realm. On the phone, she had told me about the morning practice, and we, photo hungry, wanted to be there as early as possible.
As we trudged along the wet grass, we couldn’t help but think of running a quick (probably not) lap on the synthetic track. We moved towards a cluster of blue vests huddled in a corner, waiting for instructions. Usha was in an India track suit, a stopwatch dangling from her firm hand. Her husband, V. Sreenivasan, sat on a chair under a propped-up tarpaulin sheet, a notebook in hand. The students warmed up and took to the track. Girls as young as 11 ran alongside international champions Tintu Luka and Jisna Mathew. Having smiled a hello at us, Usha returned to her wards. Her eyes darted from one pair of legs to the other, then to her stopwatch. There were periodic shouts of “Lift your knees”, “Don’t stick out your arms”, “What are you doing? Is that what I taught you?”
As each runner completed a lap, Usha would yell out their times to her husband, who dutifully noted them down. Sreenivasan is the treasurer of the school and a keen sports follower. Their son, Ujjwal, is a sports science doctor and often advises his mother on matters related to the school. The husband-wife exchange went on for a while, before Usha sat down to talk to us.
Right off the bat, I went for Jakarta, and her famed rival of the time, the Filipino star Lydia de Vega. “I was fully confident as I left for Jakarta,” she said. “In 100m, I was doing 11.50s in repetitions, which meant I would do better in competition. Lydia was my main competitor in the 100m and her father, Francisco de Vega, who was also her coach, said that an athlete could take part in only three events at the meet. He wanted me to withdraw from the 100m race. Nambiar sir [Usha’s coach] said, ‘No problem, we’ll just do the first three events. If there are such rules, we’ll just withdraw from the later events.’ But, we knew there was no such rule and I finished first in the 100m.”
The 100m sprint, the most glamorous of the races, cements the winner as the fastest person in that region, in this case Asia. Lydia, who would become the 100m champion the following year, finished third in this race. Usha was the fastest woman on the continent.
Her secret? Preparation. After the 1984 Olympics, Usha had got the opportunity to train abroad. In the summer, she would go to Crystal Palace in London for two to three months. “The training in London was excellent, you can work a lot there. But, you don’t get full satisfaction,” she said. The wind and rain there could be a dampener. “But, after putting in the hard work there, just a couple of weeks’ training back home got me fantastic performances. And, it was after all that training that I went to Jakarta.”
The training in Kerala suited her. The facilities abroad helped her improve, but it was the salty sea breeze that had shaped her sugary highs.
The climate in Jakarta was also familiar. Did that help? “It was quite hot in Jakarta,” she said, the runners’ footfall giving rhythm to our conversation. “Those days, there was not much time in between the races. We were on the track all the time. So, after every race, I went to the bathroom in the warm-up area and doused myself with water, just to freshen up. Then, it was on to the preparations for the next event.”
She laughed recalling how calm she was those days. “I just wanted to run,” she said. “Nowadays, after one race, the kids today have stiff legs. They need a massager, a physiotherapist. I would just rub down my own muscles (she demonstrated how), and I was also mentally strong.”
The heat wasn’t the only bother. As she kept running, and kept winning, there was suspicion among her critics, foremost of whom was Lydia’s father. He wanted her to be tested for doping. There were others who said she was a man. “Usually at such events, you are tested once or twice,” she said. “Here, after every final, I had to go sit in the doping room. That made me sad. I couldn’t cool down properly, which would affect my later runs. Also, after runs, there is dehydration and it takes time for the urine to come, and I had to sit there for two and a half hours at the least. I was the last to leave the field and my preparation for the next event would be messed up. But, it didn’t matter.”
Indeed, it didn’t. Not only did Usha outclass rivals in individual events, she even pulled out a bronze-medal performance from a relatively weaker 4x100m relay team. “When I got the baton, we were sixth or seventh,” she said. “Lydia was by my side, on the next lane, to anchor the Philippines team. I still have the CD of the event and I play it back quite often. The commentators had built up the battle to engage the listeners. My baton exchange was fast, and I usually catch up with and overtake one or two women in that time. Lydia was late in her exchange. We finished third, and that was India’s first medal in the 4x100m relay.”
At the same championships, Usha ran two finals within 35 minutes, which is unheard of today. “Nowadays, kids need a person to tend to them before the race and after the race,” she said animatedly. “What did we have in those days? To me, it was about fun. I just wanted to run.”
And, run faster than anyone. In fact, at the time, she was in competition with the clock. At Jakarta, she would sit in the lounge and look at the results of the heats to scout her opponents. But, none of them came close. “I used to finish 10 to 15 metres ahead of the others in many events. The biggest competition was in the 100m race,” she said. “But, I competed against time.”
As we talked, close to the chain-link fence of the school, a few women were cutting grass just outside the academy. Their scythes struck with precision, a quality Usha values a lot. “I had all my timings in my mind,” she said. “I knew how much of the race I had to finish in how much time. I knew every step.”
As she started to point out that this was what the new generation was missing, the clouds came undone. It poured. We rushed under the tarpaulin to resume the talk.
“I always felt more comfortable after finishing the 400m hurdles first,” she said. “To get it out of the way. And, thank God, that did happen at most events. After that, I would be in full flow.”
The 400m hurdles was a different beast. It needs a specific technique and training, while the other events—100m, 200m, 400m and the relays—were quite similar. The jumps had to be factored in. In Jakarta, too, the 400m hurdles came first, and so did Usha.
In fact, she ran straight into the hearts of the Indonesian public. “‘P.T. Uusa, P.T. Uusa,’ they would say’. I was more of a celebrity to them than their own athletes,” she said. “It was my lucky track. It was a Mondo (a type of synthetic track).”
The Indonesian media, too, had found its sweetheart. According to a report from that time, one local sports writer even described her as a gold mining company, while another added that it was privately owned. The letters PT in Indonesia stand for Perseroan Terbotas, meaning limited company.
Her homeland was celebrating, too. The then chief minister K. Karunakaran was so inspired that he, reportedly, led a 4km jog in Thiruvananthapuram to increase interest in sports. He also announced that the state government would give Usha Rs 2 lakh to build a house, which Usha came to know of through a newspaper while on the flight back home.
“The receptions I got were all heartfelt,” she said. “No one had been forced to come. No one had to be invited. In fact, sometimes when I look back at those performances, even I can’t believe it.”
Honestly, not many can believe it. The dominance at the event has rightfully stood the test of time.
Before wrapping up, I asked her about that one Jakarta memory, off the track, that she still cherished. She said she was gifted a long necklace made of traditional silver medallions. “I have a sandalwood statue of Venkatachalapathy at home,” she said. “It’s about this high (she marked a waist-high line in the air). I have put that necklace on the statue.”
Who was it from? I asked. “Lydia’s father.”