Anju Bobby George, coached by husband Bobby, is preparing intensely to make a mark in the long jump at the Beijing Olympic Games. The question: can she win a medal this time?
By Shevlin Sebastian
Long jumper Anju Bobby George stands at the edge of the runway on a warm Friday evening in Kochi. In this Olympic year, it is her first outdoor competition: the South Asian Athletics Championships being held at the Maharaja’s College ground. She is wearing a white, sleeveless singlet, tucked into green spandex shorts, and black spikes with bright red soles.
She turns to the crowd and, with outstretched hands, urges them to raise a cheer. The spectators -- which include her parents, K.T. Markose and Gracy, her brother, Ajith, 27, Olympians Shiny Wilson, K.M. Beenamol and Mercy Kuttan -- shout and clap.
Anju walks a couple of steps, before she sets out on her run, her eyes on the runway. Halfway during the sprint, she looks up, as she reaches a top speed, hits the takeoff board perfectly, and is airborne… the arms upraised, the right leg stretched forward, a grimace breaking out on her face. It is a clean jump, 6.50 m, a new meet record, and it is enough for her to win the gold medal.
Later, surrounded by enthusiastic reporters, with microphones and notebooks, and curious spectators, she expresses confidence about her performance. “It was a good series of jumps, but I need to make some corrections in my technique. In future, I will do much better.”
Suddenly, a spectator says, “You should jump 7 metres at the Olympic Games.”
Anju looks at the man, smiles, and says, simply, “Please pray.”
The spectator has got his math right. If Anju wants to be in medal contention at Beijing in August, she would have to jump a minimum of 7 metres. It is a distance which she has not attained, her best being 6.83 m in the 2004 Olympics Games at Athens, and which she has not replicated so far in competition.
Says Olympian P.T. Usha: “Four Russian jumpers have already crossed 7 metres, so the competition is going to be stiff, but I wish Anju all the best.”
In Beijing, Anju’s main rivals will continue to be the three medal winners at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games: Russians Tatyana Lebedeva, Irina Simagina and Tatyana Kotova. But her husband and coach Bobby is confident.
“This is a different Anju from four years ago,” he says. “She has become more mature and experienced.”
Yes, Anju does give an impression of maturity as she sits, happy and relaxed, post-competition, on a chair in the now-empty stadium. Dusk has fallen, and, above the whining of a swarm of mosquitoes, she says, “I will do well at Beijing.”
She has done well at international meets before. She is the first Indian to win a medal (bronze) at a World Championships at Paris in 2003, as well as a silver in the World Athletics final in Monaco in 2005. She is also the first Indian woman to win a Commonwealth medal (bronze) in 2002 in Manchester and the first Indian woman to win a long jump gold at the 2002 Busan Asian Games.
So, what happens to the psyche when an athlete wins an international medal? “The mental barrier is broken,” says Anju. “There is a surge of self-confidence. Earlier, when I use to see the Russians and the Americans, mentally, I would feel inferior. That disappeared when I won my first international medal.”
She says that on a good day, she can defeat anybody. “I know what my capabilities are,” she says.
Asked about her preparations, she says, “Like in any big championship year, I will be taking part in at least 13 Grand Prix events, beginning with the Qatar Super Grand Prix at Doha in May.”
As she is talking, her parents come to say goodbye. They get to see her only once a year. Anju and Bobby have been consistently missing family functions for the past several years because they did not want a break in training.
Anju’s mother, Gracy, says, the family does not mind her absence. “We know that if Anju has to succeed on the international stage, she has to sacrifice a lot,” she says.
What is most remarkable about Anju’s success so far is that she has not been competing on a level playing field. Doping is a widespread menace and, despite the recent high-profile conviction of former Olympic champion Marion Jones, experts contend that the cheats are one step ahead of the testers.
When asked about the prevalence of doping, Anju tells a story. After she won the bronze medal at the World Athletics Championships in Paris in 2003, Russian Igor Ter-Ovanesyan -- who, along with American Ralph Boston, held the long jump world record before it was sensationally broken by Bob Beamon in 1968 -- came up to Anju and said, "I have to admire you. How were you able to win a medal from among those girls?"
Says Anju: "I don’t know what Igor was trying to say, but drugs are poison and I don’t take poison."
This poison-free athlete is training intensely at her base in Bangalore, as another Indian athletic great offers some simple advice. “Anju should take part in several Grand Prix events, so that she can reach top form,” says Shiny Wilson. “The beauty of the long jump is that you just need one good jump. Anju is capable of producing one at Beijing that will enable her to win a medal.”
More than one billion Indians across the globe will be hoping Shiny’s wish comes true.
(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express)