Anju Bobby George is the first Indian woman to win a medal in athletics at the Commonwealth Games, an Asian Games gold medallist and a two-time Olympian.
But perhaps the crowning moment for the Kerala sensation was her bronze medal from the 2003 World Athletics Championships.
At the Stade de France in Paris, the Indian long jump legend brought home India’s first-ever World Championships medal that served as an inspiration for the coming generation to dream bigger.
The Olympic Channel caught up with Anju Bobby George to discuss some of the most pertinent topics involving Indian athletics, her career, the future of the sport in the country and her academy.
India has had a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19. How have you been dealing with this sudden change?
No one in the world expected something like this. Initially, we heard that something of this sort is happening in China, we never thought it would affect us. But within a month, we are in a situation where we can’t even plan for the next month.
But I am happy that we, in India, are relatively safe. I have been homebound ever since the lockdown was announced. I think we have done a good job of fighting the virus. It’s good news that it’s not spreading as it was projected. I am happy that India could do something that even developed countries like the USA and Europe are struggling with.
Especially our small state Kerala seems to be leading the way in this fight. Everyone around the world today wants to learn from the ‘Kerala model’. I am really happy in a way that we can manage the pandemic so far.
How different is the prevailing situation for an international athlete? Especially the ones who were working towards the Tokyo Olympics which is now postponed to 2021?
I think the 2020 season was very important for every athlete. It was the Olympic year. The athlete plans his calendar in a way that he can come into the Olympic year, be in the best shape, qualify for the Games and then go and do his best at the Olympics.
The outdoor (athletics) season starts around April-May. Most of the Indian athletes were looking forward to the domestic season to qualify for the Olympics. But it’s around this time that the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down.
Initially, there was no communication on the future of the Olympics. Will it happen? Will they go ahead as planned? Or are we in for a postponement? No one knew what to expect. There was a lot of uncertainty. But then the announcement (regarding the postponement) came through and there was a sense of calm among the athlete community.
As the chairperson of the Indian Olympic Association’s Athletes’ commission, what would your message be to the Indian athletes?
I want them to prepare themselves mentally. Like, be prepared for the season, whenever it is. Your performance is something you can’t be working on because you are confined to your house, but your fitness is in your hands. Put in your best to stay in top shape.
Some of them (among the elite bunch) are blessed to be inside the training centres in the country. Be it (National Institute of Sports) Patiala or (SAI South Centre) Bengaluru. Yes, you can’t get out onto the track, but you have every other facility at your disposal. Make the most of it and train yourself.
What does postponement mean for an Olympic aspirant?
The Olympics is a four-year cycle. You start your preparations right after the closing ceremony (of the previous Games). So, for someone who’s been working a schedule like that, it’s disturbing news. But then, there’s nothing one can do about it.
Agreed that sports matters for everyone, and especially for someone who’s been dreaming of competing at the Olympics. But nothing comes above human life. That has been and should always remain a priority.
But then again, I look at it from two perspectives. You have guys who were planning on retiring post the Games. We’ll have to wait and see how they plan for the Olympics in 2021. Do they hang on and continue performing at the highest level for another year? Remember, there’s a lot of hard work that the athlete has to put in to stay relevant on a professional circuit.
And you also have a section of guys, who were to start their Olympic dream post the 2020 Games. I mean, the batch that has been preparing for Paris 2024. For them, it’s a golden chance. If they can raise their game and compete with the seniors in the coming months and prove themselves they might end up realising their Olympic dream three years in advance.
A career that helped India dream big in athletics. How would you remember your time?
I started very early, but my international career came very late for me. Back in those days, we barely used to compete in any of the international competitions. And then we lacked a system like what we have today to help the athletes. Today the athletes can concentrate on their craft and rest is taken care of for them. But during my time, we have to run behind everything. It would become very difficult. The Indians would go only for the Majors back then. We never went for a Grand Prix event or something like that.
But in my case, Bobby (coach and husband) is the one who dreamt big. He wanted me to do well at the biggest stage and not just restrict myself to the domestic circuit. He used to plan everything for me, and thankfully things worked out for us.
The National Record of 6.83 you set at the Athens Olympics in 2004 still stands...
You take the women’s long jump, I think that’s an event where Indians have proved themselves. I am sure the country has seen athletes who are as talented or even better than what I was. But unfortunately, we have never been able to prove ourselves at the international stage.
One of the reasons behind this is the lack of planning. If I were to work hard like any other athlete in the country, I wouldn’t have reached where I did in my career. I strongly believe it’s the vision of a coach and his planning that makes the difference. At least, that is what made my career.
One of the primary things that is required to help Indian athletes push the boundaries is the wisdom and knowledge of a coach.
Agreed, it’s the athlete who is in the camera always, but trust me when you are competing at the highest level, you never have time or you're not in a zone to strategise or plan your routine. It’s the coach who does it for you.
In my case, Bobby would do everything. He would tell me how we would strategise a competition. Which jump should I go all out, and which one should reserve energy. And the strategy would also change seeing how my opponents would perform. You need someone out there to tell you all that. You can’t do that when you feel all the pressure in the world out there in the middle.
How do you see the future of Indian athletics?
We have good talent in the country. And our success at the junior level is a testament to that. We have a junior world record holder in javelin (Neeraj Chopra) and a world champion in 400m (Hima Das).
But for that success to translate on the senior stage, you need a good combination of an athlete and a coach who can do all the lifting for the athlete. You need an athlete and a coach who connect on the same wavelength. If that happens we can do well at the senior stage as well.
India has produced some quality performances at the Asian stage. What does that say about Indian athletics?
If you are to look at the Asian field, how many compete for the medal at the world stage? Handful. You have a high jumper from Qatar (Mutaz Essa Barshim), a discus thrower from Iran (Ehsan Haddadi), the Japanese relay team and a few. The Asian level is not much when you compare with Europe or the USA.
After winning an Asian medal, if you think you can land a medal at the World Championships or the Olympics, that’s not happening. The real competition is in Europe.
Until you won the bronze at the Paris Worlds, a fourth-place finish was considered as an achievement in Indian athletics. You helped change that perception. What will it take to see an Indian stand on the podium at the Worlds again, or this time at the Olympics?
If we can get an athlete-coach combination like what I and Bobby were, we can surely win that. A coach who's as knowledgeable as him and an athlete who's as talented as me... (laughs) You need not be immensely talented, you need to be confident. When you step out for an international competition, you need to have the courage to get inside the stadium and and give your best. And also the knowledge that a coach brings to the table.
Long jump great Mike Powell inaugurated your academy in Bengaluru in 2016. What drove you to set up a training centre post-retirement?
In India, I don't think there's a dearth of talent in India. Every state in India is like a European country. You have that much population and the population is that much varied -- be it the culture or the way of life, everything is different.
I believe in India, especially among women, we have enough talent to challenge the best in the world. But unfortunately, after my medal (bronze at the 2003 World Championships) we are not able to reach that level.
If we take my experience as an athlete and Bobby's experience as a coach and add the talent that the athletes bring, we can easily produce more Anjus, because we have already shown the way.