The morning of August 7, 1984, was a cool, dry day in Los Angeles, typical for that month, a comfortable 20-something-degree centigrade. Good for sport – not too warm yet – though Usha preferred the afternoons when the weather was closer to the tropical warmth of her seaside home in Payyoli. She had prayed briefly that morning to hold her thoughts together.
She felt calm. She had run well to qualify for the 400-metre hurdles final, though it was only her third hurdle race in the year. She wasn’t a hurdler, really – she was a sprinter, who thrilled at the adrenaline rush of sprinting 100, 200, or 400 metres. But the Olympic Games had added the 400-metre hurdles event for women for the 1984 edition, and her coach, OM Nambiar – Nambiar sir to her – had put her name down for the event.
It was only in 1983 that the event had been added to the World Championships, and there had been too little time to establish standard timings yet. Athletes were still breaking down the race into its components – the ten hurdles, the distance between hurdles, the dash from the final hurdle to the finishing line. As such, standards were not benchmarked, and Nambiar felt Usha had a chance.
She trusted “Nambiar sir” implicitly. He had trained her since she was 12 years old, when she first came to the state academy for sport in her district in Kannur, Kerala. He used to save her oranges from his share of food at the hostel and give them to her as treats if she trained well. Sometimes, he would buy her oranges with his own money. She thought of him like a father. In fact, she had spent more time with him growing up than with her own father, because she lived away from home.
He was strict but not an authoritarian – a warm, stable shelter. She never hesitated to tell him if she needed a break or had to skip an event. He listened to her, though he mostly did not agree with her views on taking breaks. Even when she was a child, Nambiar sir treated her with respect. It was this that made her grow up more than anything, this trust that an adult had in her. Later, when his trust in her was gone, that bond went too.
That morning, Nambiar sir was waiting for her in the dining hall of the Olympic Village in Los Angeles with a bowl of rice that he had cooked for her in a pan. The rice in America was not like it was back home in Kerala. It looked desiccated, unlike the plump grains she had at home, so she would mix it with a little hot water to soften it. She had briefly considered carrying some rice from home, but given the starting blocks and the extra pairs of spikes and the whole sports kit, she had only managed to carry a jar of homemade mango pickle. This she used judiciously, because it had to last her the three weeks of her Olympic stay. Her mother had made it extra potent, spicier than usual, so that just a little was sufficient to eat with the rice. On non-race days, Nambiar sir permitted her ice cream after lunch and dinner. This was Usha’s Olympic diet.
She would watch other athletes eat protein bars and supplements with their meals, but Nambiar sir had told her he would have to study the nutrients before he introduced them to her diet. Four years ago, in her first Olympics in Moscow, she had barely eaten. At 16, she had been the youngest in the Indian contingent – the youngest Indian ever at the Olympics – and left to fend for herself. Nambiar sir was not included on the tour, and no one really spoke to her. She had never seen pasta, or so many confusing varieties of soup and salad. Even the bread looked nothing like the soft, white slices she had seen at home. She was, anyway, a rice eater and there was nothing that looked like rice on the menu.
She survived the Moscow Games on ice cream, fruit, and chocolate bars. This time before the Olympics, she took no chances. She went directly to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s office in New Delhi to seek special permission for Nambiar sir to travel with her to Los Angeles for the Olympics. Usha told the Prime Minister’s assistant, who met her in lieu of Mrs Gandhi, that it came down to eating or starving at the Olympics. If Nambiar sir did not accompany her, she would not know what to eat. The Prime Minister couldn’t meet her that day, but Nambiar sir accompanied her to Los Angeles.
It probably helped that she had won two individual silver medals at the 100-metre and the 200-metre sprint events at the 1982 Asian Games in New Delhi. Much of the Central government, including the Prime Minister on occasion, had been in the audience during the Asiad. Besides, she had won a gold for the 400-metre and a silver for the 200-metre sprint at the Asian Athletics Championships in Kuwait in 1983. In the heats on August 7, only her third international hurdling event ever, she finished first with a time of 55.54 seconds, a full stride ahead of Judy Brown (55.97 seconds), the American sprinter who was the favourite for the race. The next day, she made the front page of The Times of India. A couple of days earlier at the Olympics, the Indian men’s hockey team, who were favourites for the gold had crashed out of the semi-finals. The men’s team had won eight Olympic golds in hockey until then – five of them after Independence – plus one silver and two bronzes.
The travelling Indian press contingent’s principal agenda, naturally, was to follow the hockey team’s exploits. Freed from hockey duty, the journalists turned up to watch Usha’s heats. She now carried the nation’s honour on her shoulders. She was feeling very light on her feet those days, moving and landing in rhythm with her breathing. As if her legs were moving instinctively to the quiet music of drawing breath and releasing it. Even her heartbeat, echoing in her ears, was in sync with that rhythm. It was as if her whole being was working in sync to that music, like the universe itself was moving to that music. If her breath was in beat with her heart and feet, Usha didn’t need to look at anything else, not her rivals alongside, not the stands. That synchrony was enough for her.
Excerpted with permission from The Day I Became a Runner: A Women’s History of India through the Lens of Sport, Sohini Chattopadhyay, HarperCollins India.