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Talent always trumps politics, Indian athletics on cusp of Olympic glory: Anju Bobby George

In an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda, Anju Bobby George opens up about India's Rio chances, politics in sport and her new academy.

Anju Bobby Goerge during the 2004 Athens Olympics

“Her jump was the greatest Indian athletics ever took,” these were the exact words that Milkha Singh uttered while reacting to Anju Bobby George’s monumental 6.70m bronze medal long jump at the 2003 World Championships in Paris. This particular feat also made the Kerala jumper the first Indian athlete to ever win a medal at a World Championship event. However, since her exit from competitive competition in 2008, India has failed to live up to its glory days on the international stage.

Despite significantly improving at the 2012 London Games, Indian athletics hit a new low in Beijing. The best finish was registered by Men’s Discus thrower Vikas Gowda who placed 22nd in his event. This occurred immediately after Anju’s retirement, highlighting the qualitative difference between her and the rest of the athletics contingent. Four years later in London, it was a contrasting affair with India accumulating as many as three top 10 finishes, through usual suspect Gowda, Women’s discus thrower Krishna Poonia and Race-walker K T Irfan.

The growth trajectory has been promising, but the fact still remains that the country is yet to provide a worthy successor to Anju’s throne. Earlier this month, the multiple alleged Kerala Sports Minister EP Jayarajan of corruption and perpetrating politics into sport. She promptly resigned from her post of Kerala Sports Council (KSC) President in protest to how athletics was being governed in the state.

During her resignation announcement, she had said, “You may kill us, but you will never be able to defeat us. Sports will always be ahead of politics and will thrive regardless of the barriers.” Speaking exclusively to Sportskeeda, Anju Bobby George spoke about India’s medal chances in Athletics, her plans for grass-root sports development and how the sport is now more accessible to the common man.

Q. With a month to go for the Rio Olympics, what do you think are India’s chances of winning a medal in Athletics?

To be very honest, we shouldn’t be targeting 2016 as a medal winning year. There is no doubt that Indian athletics has improved leaps and bounds, but it’s too early in our growth trajectory to medal. But, we will definitely have more top 10 finishes and definitely a few top five finishes as well. If you ask me who has the best chance of winning a medal from our contingent, it has to be the Steeplechase runners in Lalita Babar and Sudha Singh. Their determination, conviction and most importantly following of a proper training regime could see them potentially become the world’s best, provided they are offered the right training and resources.

Q. It will be fair to say that Indian athletics failed to reach the heights ever since your retirement. Why do you think there has been such a big vacum since your departure?

If you speak about me personally I was very lucky to have a great Coach, who understood my nuances and the training, diet I needed to well. In fact, I would go onto say that he handles everything for me. All my events, travel were taken care off by him and allowed me to concentrate solely on jumping. I had the right transitions at the right time that saw me reach the top level. Even though I was attending the top international events, he understood how I could match jumps. He knew that, so I feel it’s very important that the right kind of specific event training is provided to the athlete so that there is no room left for uncertainty. We have the talent and I’m sure we will see it flourish very soon.

Q. Talking specifically about your event, Indian Long jump’s international representation has been quite negligible since 2008. Do you think Ankit Sharma has a chance in Rio?

Since this will be his first event, he will have to take things step by step, his main target should and will be to get past the first round. If he can do that, it will be a major victory for him and of course Long Jump in India right now. He can build off that and prepare for the 2020 Olympics. But, it will be difficult for him to target a medal this time I feel. He should go in there with a single minded goal of reaching the first round qualification distance.

Anju registered 6.70 m at the 2003 World Championship to become India's first ever medallist at the event

Q. An administrative tussle between you and Kerala Sports Minister EP Jayarajan recently created headlines. Do you feel corruption issues are plaguing sport in India?

I feel Athletics is improving regardless of the barriers it has to fact. At one point we couldn’t of three top 10 finishes, and we are targeting 5. No amount of infrastructural and administrative barriers can stop talent rising to the top. The only problem that occurs is that it takes a longer amount of time to achieve success. However, I think the authorities are doing a lot, and we shouldn’t judge by individual cases. To achieve this target, me and my husband are creating our own academy specific to long and triple jump. We are nurturing young kids and targeting the 2024 Olympics for participation.

Right now we don’t want them to get exposure and limelight at this age, for solely being my students. Once they start competing in national/international event, we will announce it to the world.

Q. As you specifically highlighted that athletics has transitioned to a more structured entity, what are the changes that have occurred since your time as an established professional?

If you ask me there is a hell and heaven difference in the way things our conducted as compared to my initial. Prior to my World Championship participation in 2003, I had to put my training on hold for a month to get my finances cleared. So those kind of menial work is not there. Now there is an increase in awareness of how sports should be conducted in the country, hence you can see so many participants in the Olympics as well.

More infrastructure is also a key point here as when were in track and field, there were only four proper tracks in the country. One was in Trivandrun, one in Delhi, one in Kolkata and one in Bangalore. Now, every town has one track, so the Ministry is providing more infrastructure and there are more exposure trips. Before I started regularly competing at the highest level, I used to have 1 or 2 exposure trips a year. Now there are many more for the athletes. As i said, things are changing for the better and 2024 is the year.

Q. As you know, Rachita Mistry’s qualification in 100m was completely forgotten as she didn’t participate in 2000, do you think former athletes are not being given their due?

Thinking on these lines, we created the Olympians Association of India (OAI) in an attempt to record the history of our Olympians. The ones who qualified and participated, so that we could safeguard our history, people’s achievements even if they didn’t win shouldn’t be forgotten. Apart from that we are also targeting a pension scheme for all the previous Olympians, if they are struggling financially. This keep their legacy registered in the record books.

Q. Do you think that India as a whole should be hosting more Olympic qualification tournaments, similar to countries with lesser known Athletics landscapes such as Kazakhstan?

If you ask me personally, participating in an event abroad and qualifying gives an athlete a sort of extra confidence. This stems from being able to perform in an environment that you’re not generally used too. Most athletics meets abroad had bigger crowds, hence it would always motivate the athlete. I remember when I used to attend World Championships, the stadium’s aura used to give me more confidence to perform. So that way, it is important also. But I also understand how home grown talent, who might not have enough financial capability to attend as many tournaments abroad. So, it’s a big positive to have more of Olympic qualification tournaments.

Q. Three top 10 finishes in London was a massive boost for a country that was not able to enter the top 20 in any event in Beijing. How different is it now?

I can explain it this way, the athletics nail is now in place, everyone including the athletes, administrators and government will have to hit it on the head immediately. Otherwise it will be too late for us to comeback again. We must send our athletes for all the exposure trips they get, give them right nutrition and training from an early age, so that they start competing on the international stage at an early age and peak later in their career.

We are at the tipping point, and within the next two to three years, we will see international junior and senior medals. How we develop that talent into world class is completely dependent on us.  

Q. In an interview with Sportskeeda, Dutee Chand recently claimed that there is a lack of competition in India. Is that a problem you faced as well?

Yes, and that is why I keep harping on an increase of exposure trips. The more they compete with higher level athletes, the more they will be able to get to them. We call them chasers. Now if the highest jump in India is 6.10 and no one is being able to break it but you, you can only stay at that level. If someone pushes you to go beyond that, only then do you realise how much you can push yourself. This was a major problem for me, but I was lucky that I could take part in so many international tournaments. However, not everyone gets the same exposure. I hope this increases in the coming years, as certain athlete have been consistently performing. They deserve that kind of an infrastructure.

Q. Finally, do you think Indian athletics has a gold medallist by 2024?

Definitely, I hope and I believe that if everything goes right we will win gold. And why go that far? Let’s give our amazing Rio contingent a chance – Lalita, Sudha, Krishna and a number of the racewalkers could change the game on their day.

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