Anju Bobby George recalls her long jump bronze at the Paris World Athletics Championships a decade ago, a solitary landmark in Indian athletics
It was a chilly evening in Paris. The 2003 World Athletics Championships were just a day away from closing. There was no hint of the day being any different from the preceding seven days that the championships had gone through as the afternoon session began at the Stade de France, St. Denis.
A determined, young couple was quietly optimistic, though. No boasting, no forecasts and yet a gut feeling suggesting that something was on.
A decade down the line, as we talk of athletics, in the backdrop of the ongoing World Championships in Moscow, Anju Bobby George recalls a few precious moments of that day (August 30, 2003) and the rest of her career.
“I get the feeling it is going to be a memorable day for us, Bobby (George) had said that morning,” Anju recalls how the day had begun in Paris.
“I did feel after the qualification round that I could get a medal, but then there was also this feeling that my hopes need not materialise,” says Anju. “A medal, after all, is not such an easy thing to get in a world championship.”
A medal looked a mirage till Anju came up with her fifth-round effort of 6.70 metres, her season best. The gold (eventually for Frenchwoman Eunice Barber at 6.99) and silver (that Russian Tatyana Kotova took at 6.74) were more or less settled by then.
But the bronze looked to be in Anju’s grasp. She had to wait and see whether Briton Jade Johnson could beat 6.70 in her last attempt. Johnson had a 6.63 by then, to Anju’s 6.61. The Briton did not improve upon that. The rest is Indian athletics history.
As she landed, Anju looked up towards husband and coach Bobby George, sitting in the stands with her American coach and world record holder Mike Powell, shook her head and pumped her fist into the sand.
“I was dazed for quite some time after that,” says Anju, about the moments after her historic bronze.
For once, you felt proud that an Indian athlete was being given quite a bit of attention in the ‘mixed zone’ (where reporters meet athletes for quick quotes). Anju looked to be still in a daze as one caught up with her.
“I have never been able to go around the stadium with the national flag,” recalls Anju with a tinge of sadness. Paris was no different. They had just one flag that went up the pole during the medal ceremony.
The next day, we — Anju and Bobby, a couple of their friends, Powell and a guest and this correspondent — went to a downtown Paris restaurant to celebrate what has remained the lone medal for an Indian athlete at the senior level in World Championships or Olympics.
The Athens Olympics in 2004 saw Anju reach a National record of 6.83 metres that still stands. But there was to be no medal. She finished sixth (later upgraded to fifth following American Marion Jones’s doping disqualification), though Anju feels that was her best year and should have resulted in a seven-metre jump.
Anju says there was a sense of great loss even though that happened to be her best performance also.
As has been her experience in the past, this time, too, Anju felt the pangs when she watched the World Championships telecast live from Moscow, especially the long jump competition where American Brittney Reese took her third straight World Championships title.
“Every time you watch a World Championship or an Olympic Games, you tend to feel, ‘oh, I could also have been there’. The medal-winning marks mostly are distances that I have achieved,” Anju says.
Anju, 36, is expecting her second child. Since the Beijing Olympics ended in injury and tears during the qualification round for her, Anju has not returned to competition. Pregnancy and the birth of her son, Aaron, consumed part of 2010 and 2011.
Last year she prepared to stage a comeback for a last shy at Olympics, but met with another injury during the final stages of her training in Bangalore.
“I want to be in touch with athletics. That is the only way to feel young,” says Anju.