PT Usha recalls heartbreaking loss at Los Angeles Olympics

P T Usha
P T Usha missed out on an Olympic medal by one hundredth of a second. File photo: Manorama Online

With the Paris 2024 Games just a few weeks away, India's sprint queen P T Usha recalls her memories of competing at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Although she catapulted herself into the global athletics consciousness with an incredible performance in the 400m hurdles event, the pain of missing out on the bronze medal by one hundredth of a second still lingers. 

Usha looks back on those moments of delight and despair with a sense of nostalgia on International Olympic Day (June 23). 

So close, yet so far

I landed in Los Angeles 20 days before the start of the Games. At an event organised as part of Olympic preparations, I beat Judith Brown of the US to finish first. In round one heats of the Games, Judith and I ran together where I finished second and qualified for the semifinals. In the semis too we were in the same heat. Pushing Judith behind, I claimed the top spot and entered the finals. In the finals, Judith accelerated in the final lap to clinch the silver medal, but I had to be content with a fourth-place finish. 

Huge expectations

By the time I reached the semifinals of the 400m hurdles event, the Indian men's hockey team, considered to be the country's brightest medal hopes in Los Angeles, had been knocked out of the Games. With their exit, the whole country's hope rested squarely on my shoulders. The pressure was immense. I felt like running away from the Indian supporters who crowded around me to wish me good luck for the final. 

The final test

I was on the starting block, anxiously waiting for the race to begin. The race official pulled the trigger and I was quick off the block. I was leading the pack as I was able to reach my top speed quickly. Unfortunately, the athlete in lane six made a false start after falling on the track. The race was cancelled and I had to return to the starting block one again. I was nervous thinking about whether I would be able to start well again. My biggest fear came true as I had a poor start and could not make up ground during the course of the race. Though I tried my best, I could not finish the race well due to the slow start.

Poor tactics

In the semifinals, I was in lane two, while in the final, I was allocated the fifth lane. In the final, I was looking to employ the same running tactics that were used in the semifinals. I was looking to go a bit slow in the beginning before accelerating during the final two hurdles. The false start by the athlete in lane six spoiled my plans. However, I used all my force to run at top speed and kept pace with the rest of the pack. 

The unbelievable finish by Judith Brown upset my rhythm, but I was confident of securing the bronze medal. Holding my breath, I looked at the replays of the race shown on the giant screen at the stadium. After a few seconds, the final result appeared on the screen. Nawal El Moutawakel of Morocco won the gold with a timing of (54.61s), while Judith Brown (55.20s) and Cristieana Cojocaru of Romania (55.41s) secured silver and bronze respectively. I was fourth with a timing of 55.42s. Sweden's Ann-Louise Skoglund (55.43s) was behind me. I broke down in tears and felt out of control. It was the most painful moment of my sporting career and I had woken up to that nightmare several times in the days that followed.

That being said, I'm proud that the timing I set 40 years ago, when athletes in India were hamstrung by poor training facilities and sporting infrastructure, continues to be the national record.

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