120 Years, 120 Stories (Part 31): India’s Golden Girl PT Usha on the Flame


If India and Olympics make an odd combination, then add to that female athletes and you see the threesome almost a Halley’s Comet frequency equivalent in the talking days of 1980s. But thanks to PT Usha that India could see a new dawn in this domain and inspire the future generation of the Malleswaris, the Nehwals and the Koms to atleast not return from the Games empty-handed.

Pilavullakandi Thekkeraparambil Usha was born in 1964 at her native Payyoli, Kozhikode in the southern Indian state of Kerala. Though the lanky girl used to be frequently taken ill in her childhood years, she was very promising in sports and was a local star for her athletic prowess. On the back of medal-laden performances in a meet at Pakistan and international junior events, she made her first appearance at the Moscow Games in 1980 at a jaw-dropping age of 16!

However, Usha returned from the Games disappointed – she bowed out in the initial heats in both the 100m and 200m events that she participated in. But, the Payyoli Express – as she has been nick-named – won two silver medals in the same events, which failed her at Moscow, in the 1982 Asian Games at Delhi. By the time the countdown for Los Angeles Games had begun in 1984, PT Usha was undoubtedly a force to reckon with.

In the Games, PT Usha however did opt for neither the 100m or the 200m as earlier but for the 400m hurdles – the very first time that the event took place at the Olympics. Buoyed by the absence of the event-favourites East German and Russian athletes who had boycotted the Games owing to political issues, the 20-year old Keralite fancied her chances to the fullest and even came first in her semi-final heat beating the eventual silver-medalist Judi Brown of the United States. In the process, she became the first ever Indian female athlete to enter into the medal round of an Olympic event. But the end was what one would never really wished for – PT Usha came fourth (very much like fellow countryman Milkha Singh in Rome 1960) and thus missed out on a medal by 1/100th of a second.

On the other side of the Games, she did participate in the 4X400m relay team event – where India finished last in the title round before qualifying through a field of weak competitors. The final and the only other time that Usha, who would go on to win 101 international medals in her stellar career, participated in the Games was after four years, hence at Seoul, where she finished an uncharacteristic last in the opening heat in the 400m hurdles.

PT Usha won a lot of continental and international events outside the Olympics. She was awarded the best annual Asian athlete for five times between 1984 and 1989 and the World Trophy twice. She also received the prestigious Padma Shri (a civilian honour from the Government of India) in 1984. She married at 1991 and took a break from the tracks before making a comeback two years later.

Although she was a member of the 4X400m relay contingent of India in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, she did not take the tracks in the event thus keeping her last appearance at the biggest sporting extravaganza to 1988.

Post her retirement in 2000, the Golden girl of Indian athletics has set up the Usha School of Athletics at her native and popular names like Tintu Lukka who represented India at the London Games in 2012 are products of her academy. Apart from them, there are innumerable female sportspersons even outside the traditional domains of track and field events who have idolized Usha in their quest of making a name for themselves.


Photo by DaGoaty