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8th August 1984, four days before the closing ceremony of the glittering 23rd Summer Olympics at Los Angeles. The finals of the women’s 400m hurdles, featuring, in Lane 5, the very first Indian woman in the finals of any Olympic event, ever, are about to be flagged off. The starting pistol goes, and the 20-year-old in Lane 5, conscious that she is carrying the hopes of an entire sports-mad, non-sporting nation on her tall, angular frame, begins strongly, but pulls up two seconds in. Someone has made a false start, and the race must be restarted. Her focus a little shaken, the girl returns to the starting blocks and forces herself to concentrate.
The previous day, she had run her semi-final heat at 55. 54, and won the heat (a feat that no other Indian woman Olympic athlete has been able to repeat in the 33 years since), forcing the American television commentator to sit up and take notice, to acknowledge that ‘Yoosha’ was one of the favourites not just for a podium finish, but – hold your breath – a gold medal. The pistol goes off again, and this time there’s no looking back. The girl runs the race of her life, stopping the clock at 55. 42, and setting, in the process, a national record that stands to this day, but it proves to be a hundredth of a second too late to make the kind of history she had hoped to. It is a heart-breaking repeat of another 4th place finish, that one a quarter of a century earlier, at the 1960 Rome Olympics, where the Indian contender, Milkha Singh, had finished a tenth of a second behind that bronze medal winner. “I cried and cried, for days”, chuckles the 54-year-old, at the memory of her distraught younger self, in a recent interview. You cannot help but marvel at that chuckle – so light, so free of bitterness and rancour, so lacking the shadow of regret one would expect from an athlete who scaled every peak that she essayed in her personal quest for sporting excellence. Every peak, that is to say, bar one.
The lightness of Usha’s chuckle – for, of course, we have been talking of none other than the Payyoli Express, our Golden Girl, the great PT Usha – stands out particularly sharply when seen against the background of the collective hand-wringing and breast-beating the country put itself through after the 1984 Olympics, when the Indian squad – a lean, mean contingent of only 48 of our best, pruned down from the 76 that had been sent to the much-boycotted Moscow Games four years earlier – returned with no medals at all. The unkindest cut was that the much-touted men’s hockey team, which had won gold at eight Olympics, including Moscow, had placed a humiliating fifth (to rub salt into the LA wound, Pakistan won the gold).
The self-loathing was particularly acute because of what had gone before. Just two years earlier, national pride had touched an all-time high after the success of the 1982 Delhi Asian Games, which had seen the capital transformed and brought in world-class sporting infrastructure and international coaches in droves for the benefit of Indian sportspeople. That pride, further bolstered by India’s 57-medal haul, had ensured that expectations from the contingent that went to the 1984 Games had reached stratospheric – and quite unreasonable – heights. Plus, in 1983, Kapil Dev’s men had won the cricket World Cup, sending hopes soaring even further – after all, if we could be world-beaters in cricket, it was only a matter of time – like, say, a year – before we turned world-beaters in every other sport! The let-down, when it came, therefore, was eviscerating. The fact that the country had, at the exact same time, also entered the brave new era of television-watching, with events being beamed directly into Indian living rooms, did not help. For the first time, Indians saw, with their own eyes, how far behind the rest of the world our athletes stood, what a long, long way we had still to go to create the kind of infrastructure that would help raise a generation of world-beating sportspeople, and, in the absence of any effective formal system by which to catch ‘em young, by what a rum chance an athlete of Usha’s natural genius had been found at all.
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