“Usha, Usha, Usha.”
The sound of Pilavulakandi Thekkeparambil Usha’s name reverberated across the stadium in Seoul each time she was on the track. The 70,000 spectators present, including the Koreans, pronounced the name with almost child-like awe.
PT Usha, on the other hand, stuck to her routine. The 22-year-old’s green silk shorts and saffron and white vest emblazoned with the number ‘67’ were everyone’s focus but she didn’t look like she could be bothered.
She would settle down to take her mark, follow it up by wiping her hands on the shorts, adjust the bangles on her wrists and the necklace around her neck, then touch her forehead in prayer before resting her weight on her fingertips, with a gentle rocking motion as she waited for the starter’s pistol to go off.
Once the race began, it was clear that Usha was in another class. She would get out of the blocks well and always seemed to have the right strategy in place. Perhaps more importantly, her confidence was sky-high.
After her showing at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics where she had written a new chapter in the country’s athletics history by making the final of the 400m hurdles and eventually finishing fourth, missing the bronze by one-hundredth of a second, she believed there was in Asia who could touch her and she was right.
She ended up winning 4 golds (400m, 400m hurdles, 4 x 400m relay, 4 x 100m relay) and a silver (100m) – a record for a single athlete at any international meet. Each gold medal-winning performance ended with a record and the same familiar rhetoric despite being in a foreign land. Usha. Usha. Usha.
The schedule, though, was pretty crazy. She ran three races within the space of 110 minutes and it took a toll.
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But as Usha and her coach Madhavan Nambiar told India Today, they were willing to do it for the country.
“I have to do it for the country and for our medals tally,” said Usha. “It’s not too much of a strain except that I have no time to warm up properly before a race if I have just finished another event.”
Nambiar, though, wanted her to concentrate on fewer events in the future.
“It is too much of a strain on Usha, though she will never admit it, said Nambiar. “If I had my way, she would run and train for only one event, the 400 m hurdles. But there is always this pressure on her to run in as many races as possible so that India can win some medals. If it is for the country, how can we refuse?”
Her performance was all the more phenomenal when viewed against the backdrop of the disastrous showing by the rest of the 300-member Indian contingent that earned just one more gold. India’s overall tally was 5 gold medals, 9 silver medals and 23 bronze medals.
The 1986 Asian Games were special because they pushed athletics into the limelight and made everyone want to be like PT Usha. Suddenly, Indians seemed to believe that they too could run fast.
And when Usha came back, she heard the same chant from Seoul back home too.
“Usha. Usha. Usha.”
You can watch three of Usha’s gold medal-winning performances and her 100m silver below: