Los Angeles ’84: a gain & a loss

P. T. Usha with her mind-boggling collection of medals and trophies.-K RAGESH

“I, and India, missed an Olympic medal by one hundredth of a second at Los Angeles, 1984. The disappointment at the time was crushing, but now, 25 years later, I wouldn’t hesitate even for a moment before ranking that race as the best moment of my career. That near-medal means to me as much as some of the 100-odd international medals I have won in my career that lasted nearly two decades.”

The best moment of my career was followed immediately by the worst. As the women’s 400m hurdles final finished at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, I thought I had won the bronze, and realised my dream — of any athlete, rather — of winning an Olympic medal. The announcer at the stadium first said that I had won the bronze; then he stopped, abruptly. A few agonising moments later, I found out that I had finished fourth in a photo finish. I, and India, had missed an Olympic medal by one hundredth of a second.

The disappointment at the time was crushing, but now, 25 years later, I wouldn’t hesitate even for a moment before ranking that race in Los Angeles in 1984 as the best moment of my career. That near-medal means to me as much as some of the 100-odd international medals I have won in my career that lasted nearly two decades.

After my Olympic debut as a 16-year-old in the sprint events in Moscow in 1980, I had begun to nurse ambitions of an Olympic medal for the first time in my life.

It was my coach O. M. Nambiar who saw my potential in the 400m hurdles; though I used to do the shorter hurdles as a kid, I had left it, as I concentrated on the sprint events. But interestingly, I had run just two 400m hurdles races in India before Los Angeles; I was, however, confident of my chances, looking at the times clocked by the world’s leading athletes in the event. And I became even more confident going into the final as I won the semifinal, beating Judy Brown of the United States, one of the favourites for the gold.

There have been several happy moments on the track for me, before and after Los Angeles. Right on top of them would be the 1986 Asian Games in Seoul, where I won four golds and a silver. What made me particularly proud and happy was the fact that I could almost single-handedly help India reach fifth in the overall medals tally; I had accounted for four of the country’s five golds. And I remember when I opened my campaign India was standing 14th in the medals tally.

I had produced an even better performance a year before, at the Asian Track and Field meet in Jakarta. I won six medals, including five golds, a World record for the highest number of medals for a track-and-field athlete in a single meet.

Another moment that I will always cherish came in Fukuoka in the 1998 Asian athletics championship. On my comeback, I won three medals, silencing my critics — not for the first time, of course.

Off the track too, I have had some extremely happy moments. Once Mohandas Pai of Infosys presented me with a cheque of Rs.10 lakhs after hearing me speak at a function about my dream of starting an academy of athletics; it was with that money I began the work of establishing the Usha School of Athletics, which is now seven years old and has already produced fine athletes like Tintu Luka.

“Another moment that I will always cherish came at Fukuoka in the 1998 Asian athletics championship. On my comeback, I won three medals, silencing my critics — not for the first time, of course.”-

A shopkeeper refusing to accept payment, after a hard bargain in fact, for a schoolbag at the Sarojini Nagar Market in Delhi when he recognised me, young kids in Tamil Nadu, who were not even born when I was running for India, mobbing me for autographs, former athletes coming up to me at various international meets abroad and talking about old times…I feel blessed to continue having such lovely moments, long after I have hung up my boots.

There have been pretty bad moments as well. Quite a lot of them, in fact.

Missing a medal by the narrowest of margins at the Los Angeles Olympics was frustrating. There were frustrating events leading to Los Angeles too.

One of the worst moments of my life was when my fellow-competitors staged a protest on the track against my participation at the qualifying event for the Los Angeles Olympics in New Delhi; they delayed the 400m hurdles race by more than an hour. It was humiliating. Since I didn’t want to disrupt the meet, I withdrew.

It wasn’t the only instance when I was ‘boycotted’ by other athletes. In 1994 in Lucknow, in a qualifying meet for the Asian Games, I had to run the 200m race all by myself. All the other seven runners refused to run, but the organisers wanted me to, so that the chief guest of the day could be entertained.

The moment that has hurt me the most was when people pelted stones at my house at Payyoli (Kerala) after I went out in the preliminary round of the 400m hurdles at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. Everyone wanted my blood. I was feeling so low that I shut myself up in my room, and I remember my mother getting worried and scared for me; it was then she decided that it was time for me to get married.

I was humiliated at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 too, where I was forced to sit in the gallery while a far lesser experienced runner replaced me in the 4x400m relay. It was embarrassing with athletes of other countries asking me why I was sitting there, while I should actually have been running on the track. I, however, wasn’t the only Indian embarrassed at the Centennial Olympic Stadium in Atlanta: the Indian women’s relay team was disqualified for crossing the track.

Another moment I would like to forget is from the SAF Games in Chennai in 1995. I was the captain of the Indian team and was carrying the National flag as our contingent was about to enter the Nehru Stadium. Then Shiny Wilson came along with a Government official; he told me that Shiny, and not me, was the captain and therefore I had to hand over the flag to her. And I could hear over the public address system the announcement that the Indian team was about to enter the stadium under the leadership of P. T. Usha; the announcer obviously hadn’t been informed of the last-minute change of captaincy. I told Shiny: “I never wanted to be the captain, it was thrust upon me; if you had said a word to me, I would have happily stepped aside for you.”

Somehow, I continue to be a target for some athletes, past and present. Some time back Anju George, on television, doubted my capabilities as an international athlete. I was disappointed to hear that and wondered if she knew that I had won four medals at Grand Prix meets in 1985 alone.

And recently, a couple of my former team-mates said I was too arrogant to mix with the rest of the team. Unwarranted comments like that hurt, yes. But I have been lucky to have had a career that has more than compensated for such forgettable moments.

As told to P. K. Ajith Kumar