When Asia’s running queens crossed paths

Ariel Ian Clarito

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When Asia’s running queens crossed paths
Back in the ‘80s, fierce rivals Lydia de Vega and PT Usha figured in a compelling track drama that gripped the entire continent



MANILA, Philippines – Perhaps it was not coincidence that they were born on the same year: 1964. Maybe it was fate’s way of ensuring that their paths would cross. 

Cross paths they did many times over on the race tracks. Every encounter between them, hyped heavily each time by the media, made for compelling drama that gripped two proud countries and an entire continent. 

Lydia De Vega-Mercado was a product of the Gintong Alay program which began in the 1970s. She introduced herself to the international scene when as a 17-year-old, she won a silver in the 400 meters, a bronze in the 200m, and another silver in the 4x100m relay at the 1981 Asian Athletics Championship.  

De Vega followed this up with gold medals in record-breaking fashion in the 200m and 400m events at the 1981 Southeast Asian Games. Her winning time in the 200m  broke the 11-year Asian record established by Taiwanese legend and 1970 Associated Press Athlete of the Year Chi Cheng.  

Not since the time of Mona Sulaiman, who dominated the Asian scene in the early 1960s, did the Philippines have another star speedster. 

Over in India, a young girl named Pilavullakandi Thekkeparambil Usha, or PT Usha for short, was also stamping her class and making a case for herself as a future athletic star.  

Usha was blasting the opposition in the local junior circuits when she started competing at the age of 14. By 1981, she was setting the Indian national records in both the 100m and 200m events.  

De Vega and Usha would finally go toe-to-toe at the 1982 Asian Games held in New Delhi. It afforded the two the stage to announce to the rest of the field that there was going to be a changing of the guard in the Asian athletic landscape.  

Usha endeared herself to the home crowd when she finished a close 2nd to Hiromi Isozaki of Japan in the 200m race, an event De Vega skipped because of a pulled muscle.  

In the 100m event, Usha’s quest for a gold medal finish was thwarted when De Vega took control by the middle of the race to win convincingly. De Vega gained superstar status by becoming the new sprint queen of Asia. Usha, too, gained recognition, plus extra motivation to upend her Filipina rival the next time they meet. 

No great challenge

The two faced off the following year in the Asian Athletic Championships. Usha bested the Asian record in the 400m where De Vega finished with a bronze.  

De Vega, however, blew away the field in the 200m which she won by over half a second over silver medalist Usha.  

The Filipina established herself as the fastest women in Asia when she won another gold in her favorite event, the 100m. 

It was in 1984 when a stronger and faster Usha emerged. During the Los Angeles Olympics, Usha finished 4th in the 400m hurdles, missing out on a bronze by a heartbreaking one-hundredth of a second and the chance to become India’s first ever medalist in athletics.  

This impressive performance at the highest level of competition fueled Usha’s confidence and prompted her coach OM Nambiar to proclaim in an interview: “Now we can tackle anybody in Asia. Lydia De Vega will be no great challenge either. You will see what Usha can do in Jakarta.” 

Nambiar’s pronouncements would turn out to be no empty boast. During the 1985 Asian Championships held in Indonesia, Usha, who had trained in London, would show that she was ready to outclass not only De Vega but also every other Asian who wanted to challenge her quest for regional supremacy.  

Usha won the gold in the 100m event. De Vega finished 3rd in the race. The Indian also won the 200m where De Vega could only cop 5th place.  

The Indian star won 3 other events – the 400m, 400m hurdles, and the 4x400m relay – to end up with 5 gold medals. De Vega went home with a solitary bronze.  

By then, the media began touting Usha as the new Asian track queen while already doubting De Vega’s ability to bounce back and remain relevant in the international arena.  

For De Vega, it meant the need to lick her wounds and continue training at the Mount Saint Antonio College in Los Angeles where she had been based. She had to reassess how she was going to narrow the gap between her and her Indian adversary, who may have had already left her behind by a mile.  

One last time

During the 1986 Seoul Asian Games, expectations were high that Usha would simply cement her status as the preeminent track star in Asia. Known as the Payyoli Express, a reference to her village in Kerala, Usha easily won gold medals in the 400m and 400m hurdles.  

There was a general consensus that there was no one in the field who could challenge Usha. But in the sprint event, Usha’s aura of invincibility was shattered.  

In what easily was the most anticipated and most publicized athletic event of the Asian Games, Usha and De Vega raced against each other in the finals of the 100m. It was a battle pitting Asia’s recognized Queen of Track versus the defending champion and Sprint Queen.  

De Vega showed that talks of her career being on the decline were all premature as she retained her hold on the sprint crown by edging Usha.  

The victory prevented Usha from her goal of winning 5 gold medals. But Usha exacted revenge in the 200m as the Indian won by the slimmest of margins (.03 seconds). Usha added another gold to her medal haul as part of India’s 4x400m relay champion team. 

The Seoul Asian Games validated the belief of many that Usha was indeed the best in Asia. De Vega, though, remained the fastest in the centerpiece sprint event. The two needed one more opportunity to settle once and for all who truly was the Asian track queen. 

De Vega and Usha would compete against each other while still at their peak one last time at the 1987 Asian Championships.  

Usha maintained her stranglehold on the 400m and 400m hurdles where she won gold medals. De Vega matched these by also winning two golds. She won the 200m and beat Usha anew in the 100m sprint.  

So who then between De Vega and Usha can lay claim to being the top Asian track star of the 1980s?  

The truth is, it is really difficult to brand either one as the undisputed best. They were almost evenly matched and won accolades that no other Asians of that decade ever achieved. 

Almost 40 years since their rivalry began, it is still almost impossible to talk about one of them without mentioning the other. The careers of De Vega and Usha will perpetually be linked. They pushed one another to be better, and they both made the 1980s an iconic era in Asian athletics. – Rappler.com

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