The Payyoli Express was certainly an enigma. At the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, she missed the 400 metres hurdles bronze by 1/100th of a second, making it the closest-ever miss for an Indian athlete in any competition. In many ways, this miss overshadowed the incredible feat that it actually was. To finish fourth on the biggest stage of all, and that too without experience, was no mean feat.
PT Usha had gone to LA with a lot of preparation. She had a string of good results in the run up to the Games. In the 1982 Asian Games that were held in New Delhi, she finished second in both the 100 and 200 metres.
However, her performance in the world championships in Moscow wasn’t flattering. In a field of seven, she finished sixth in the 100. In the 200, she finished 31st out of 39 competitors. However, she claimed the 400 metres gold at the Asian track and field meet in Kuwait a year later.
That prompted Usha to concentrate on the 400 metres hurdles, a race that would be introduced for the first time for women at the Olympics. She clocked a world-class 55.7 seconds at the Olympic trials. Usha had qualified for the Games. She finished her heats in 56.81 seconds and qualified for the semifinals.
And it turned out to be a historic affair. She clocked a time of 55.54 seconds. Not only was it a Commonwealth record, but also the first instance of an Indian athlete winning an Olympic semifinal.
Usha started superbly but one of the challengers false-started.
That seemed to have broken her rhythm and she got off the blocks a bit slower at the restart. The flow was missing but by the eighth hurdle, she had caught up with the leaders. However, she failed to match the challenge of Romania’s Christina Cojocaru and wasn’t able to lunge at the finish. The announcer said Usha had finished third. However, a minute later, he corrected himself, saying Cojocaru had won bronze. Usha had missed out by 1/100th of a second.