Anju Bobby George, whose silver at the World Athletics Final in 2005 recently got upgraded to gold, looks back at her illustrious career as a long jumper

The infectious smile endears you to one of India’s most accomplished athletes; and unsung too. For Anju Bobby George, athletics has been one great journey, beginning with her love for heptathlon before the transition to long jump at the behest of coach T.P. Ouseph. “The turning point of my career,” she reflects on the decision to pursue long jump.

Anju made history when she claimed the long jump bronze medal with a 6.70m leap at the 2003 World Championships in Paris, becoming the first Indian athlete to win a World Championships medal. Success sits lightly on her shoulders for humility sets her apart. Honoured with the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award in 2003 and Padma Shri the next year, she became a proud winner of the 2005 World Athletics Final gold when she was upgraded to the title following the disqualification of Tatyana Kotova of Russia by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) for testing positive for a prohibited substance.

Kotova and five other athletes tested positive in re-tests done in 2013 by the IAAF on samples taken during the 2005 World championships. The Russian was disqualified in the World championships in Helsinki and was also disqualified in the subsequent World Athletics Final in Monaco the same year, in the process upgrading Anju’s silver to gold.

“Only the Olympics medal is missing in my collection; an important medal that is. The competition level at the World championships and Olympics are same but still. Having said that, I have, to tell you honestly, no regrets at all,” says Anju. There is no reason to disbelieve her as she keeps giggling and laughing right through the conversation.

In her best performing year in 2004, Anju finished sixth in the long jump competition at the Athens Olympics, with a national record of 6.83. The subsequent doping disqualification of American Marion Jones pushed Anju up a rung to fifth.

Anju had hopes that Kotova (3rd in Athens) and another Russian, Irina Meleshina (nee Simagina), silver medallist, who also had tested positive post-2004, would be disqualified because of their later offences and she would get upgraded to an Olympic medal. Rules, however, do not permit either re-testing of samples or disqualification of results beyond an eight-year period.

Some of the 2004 samples were re-tested in 2012 but the Russian long jumpers were not among those caught doping.

Because of the rampant use of performance enhancing substances by her rivals, as proved by later events, Anju justifiably felt that she was cheated out of medals during her prime by many of her contemporaries who were high on dope.

Anju, a resplendent icon of the sport, confesses to having become “lazy” and “sloppy” too as far as athletics is concerned. At 37, she is busy nurturing Andrea, her seven-month-old daughter, even as she keeps an eye on the adventurous Aaron, her four-year-old son. Husband Bobby is around to assist but Anju loves the household chores and a composed daily routine, a huge contrast to the punishing schedule she endured when chasing her athletics dreams.

“My lower portion of the body was too long,” she points out as the reason for her shift to long jump. Obviously it was difficult initially but she found her way. “I can adapt quickly. I can watch and learn without any coach’s guidance too. Only when I went to the United States for coaching for the first time that I realised what real athletics was. It was different. Sitting home one can criticise anyone but only when you step out you realise how difficult it is to compete with the rest of the world. I realised I had this special ability to adapt.”

International athletics keeps evolving. Tactics and coaching methods change and differ from coach to coach. Anju adds, “For me it was easy to notice the changes and new methods, it was a natural thing. Bobby is not like a regular coach. His approach and thoughts are different. He would always tell me that I had to go beyond the Asian level. It was tough in the beginning but soon I realised I could stand along with the rest.”

Most top athletes of the world train in US, England, Russia and South Africa. Often, Anju felt the need to prepare for her events in India but the lack of proper coaching support compelled her to abandon such plans. “We have the basic infrastructure to prosper in athletics but our coaching standards are woefully behind the rest of the world. We are not able to keep pace with the tactical changes and have been following age-old methods of training. That is why I have always insisted that our coaches need to change their mindset. That can happen only by giving our coaches proper exposure. This is one area we have sorely ignored.”

Anju’s newly-attained status of an international gold medallist should inspire women athletics in the country. “I hope. Today, people know the importance of sports. It helps you become good citizens, gets you admission to prestigious colleges and finally helps you get a job too. Parents are willing to spend time and money on their children if they want to pursue a career in sports. In athletics, women have done extremely well. In badminton and tennis too!”

Is it easy for women to win medals in athletics, badminton and tennis? “I don’t know. Maybe we are better than men,” her laughter mirrors her relaxed frame of mind. “The standard of athletics in India is good only for the Asian level. We are way behind the rest of the world and nothing would make me happier than a woman athlete from India winning an Olympic medal.”

The Kerala-born Anju now lives in Bangalore. She has plans for the future too. “I certainly look forward to starting an academy in Bangalore. A wellness programme for youth, train athletes in long jump, not necessarily a high performance one, but share my experience.” Her academy could find branches in Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram . For the time being though, she is busy with Aaron and Andrea. They deserve the attention and affection of one of India’s finest sporting icons.

Some of her major achievements

- Anju made history when she claimed the long jump bronze medal with a 6.70m leap at the 2003 World Championships in Paris, becoming the first Indian athlete to win a World Championships medal.

- Anju finished sixth in the long jump competition at the Athens Olympics in 2004. The subsequent doping disqualification of American Marion Jones pushed Anju up a rung to fifth.