A leap into HISTORY

"WE want a medal, we are not looking for just a place in the final,'' said Bobby George, three days before Anju was to attempt qualification into the World championships final.

K. P. MOHAN

The sequence of Anju George's bronze winning effort from the time she took off till she landed. — Pics. AP and AFP-

"WE want a medal, we are not looking for just a place in the final,'' said Bobby George, three days before Anju was to attempt qualification into the World championships final.

Call it cockiness, call it arrogance, call it over-confidence, Bobby George always thought and spoke big. Bigger than most Indian coaches. Maybe that was his way of pepping himself and his wife up. More than Anju herself, he could always analyse and understand his wife's talent and potential.

"I knew she had it in her to win a World championship medal back in Thiruvananthapuram (on June 4, 2001) when she jumped 6.74,'' said Bobby, about two hours after his wife had pulled off the biggest medal Indian athletics ever had.

Anju Bobby George's long jump bronze behind Frenchwoman Eunice Barber and Russian Tatyana Kotova on a chilly Saturday evening at St. Denis, on the outskirts of Paris, in front of some 60,000 spectators at the Stade de France, will be talked about in glorious terms for years to come.

For, no Indian athlete has ever won a medal on the global stage, among seniors. Only a few have reached the final. And among them we keep talking about two, Milkha Singh's near brush with a bronze and history at the 1960 Rome Olympics and P. T. Usha's agonising lunge at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics that was not good enough for a medal.

So near, yet so far. Indian athletics history, nay Indian sports history, is clich�-ridden. A few exceptional stories of unimaginable hardships, dedication and single-minded approach. But all ending in tears.

As a beaming Anju stretched out and hugged Bobby, moments after Briton Jade Johnson finished her last round, and as news trickled through to Dubai and Doha, to Ernakulam and Kozhikode, as TV networks got cracking in New Delhi, there might have been tears of joy in the Anju household in faraway Changanassery and Bobby's home in Peravur, Kerala. This was time to celebrate, as never before. Anju had added a fresh, exciting chapter to Indian athletics history, a chapter that she and Bobby had penned, that not many were prepared to read, leave alone believe, till August 30, 2003.

But then even Anju was nervous as she went into her first global championships. She knew, Bobby knew, all of us knew that the qualifying round was going to be very, very tough. For, you get just three chances there. Her face showing the tension, of one trying to live up to a promise, with Bobby, sitting next to Mike Powell and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, gulping down water in the stands, Anju took off and landed quite well on her first jump. It was 6.59 and that is where she finished. She fouled the next two. But that was more than sufficient, even though the automatic qualifying mark was 6.65. Anju was sixth among 12 qualifiers. The bunch that moved into the final did not include Commonwealth Games champion Elva Goulbourne of Jamaica. Kotova barely made it with a 6.56.

Looking at how things went in the qualifying round, there was hope for Anju in the final, we thought. "But wait, Kotova will come back strongly in the final,'' said Anju that evening. And Eunice Barber was bound to pull out all stops in front of frenzied home fans. The rest?

Yes, the rest could be tackled. When Kotova first and then Barber jumped 6.74, after she herself opened with a 6.61 to lead in the final, Anju knew she had a chance for a medal. Round two was gone and there she was, at No. 3, with the toppers achieving a mark she had registered twice in her career, at Thiruvananthapuram in 2001 and again at the Open National in Delhi in 2002.

The weather was not exactly ideal; it was chilly. But Anju had the rhythm going and she felt the same feeling creeping up, the feeling that she could land a medal that day, as it was in Manchester last year when she had grabbed a bronze, the country's first in athletics in those Games by a woman.

Then, as she took off for the fifth round, after two fouls and a 6.48, Anju did one thing, very thoughtfully. She made sure that her tracksuit did not hide Mother Mary's figurine, in her bag. "I normally fling the tracksuit on top of my bag. I did that in Manchester as well and then just before my last jump (that fetched her the Commonwealth medal) I saw that Mother was hidden. I removed the track top and kept it aside. I did that here (Paris) also and said a prayer.'' Incidentally, she was wearing the Busan Asian Games competition kit, not because she thought it would bring her luck, but because she could not stand the sight of the new one, a garish fluorescent green being the dominant colour.

Lucky charm or not, divine intervention or not, Anju soared to a distance of 6.70, just four centimetres short of her National mark and her season's best. She had wrested the lead for the third place back from Jade Johnson. She would not surrender it again that night. Anju characterised that fifth jump as `poor' since it was `flat'. "I don't know how I landed, my legs were in a tangle, I thought.''

Technical perfection did not seem to matter at that time. It hardly matters when you are jumping, running or throwing for medals. Medals at big meets, medals that will change your future.

Having said that, it is technical perfection that will carry an athlete far, especially in jumps. Courtship and marriage (in 2000) to Bobby ensured that Anju's talent would be moulded on much firmer technical lines by her husband, a qualified engineer who could use his triple-jumping-long jumping background plus his intelligence to good effect in training his wife.

Shortly before marriage, she jumped a 6.59 in Bhopal and looked set to make it to the Sydney Olympics. But an injury, sustained at Nagercoil, got aggravated in Thiruvananthapuram and Anju made a tearful exit. Injury had often forced her to skip triple jump, once her favourite event, but she keeps coming back to it, as she did at the Busan Asian Games last year after opening India's campaign with the long jump gold.

An ankle injury, sustained during the European tour in 2001, again kept Anju out of the World championships in Edmonton. "As I watched Fiona May win last time, I thought, when will I get a chance to compete in a World championships'', Anju said on that night of quiet celebration at the Stade. May flopped this time.

Anju's first taste of a major championship was the Commonwealth Games and then the World Indoor championships in March this year. No one really cared for her participation in an indoor meet at that time. She finished seventh in Birmingham, with 6.40. Though it was a straight final, the experience gained in competing against most of world's best, was crucial. "I won't have the jitters next time,'' she had said.

Then came the most frustrating phase of this season, trudging in and out of ministry and SAI offices in Delhi before they managed to get the initial funds sanctioned by the Government for their trip to the US to train under Mike Powell. Finances remained a constant worry even after Anju signed up with the HSI, a top American sports management firm that handled the affairs of men like Maurice Greene, Ato Boldon and Allen Johnson.

The Grand Prix grind in Europe was the toughest part. Unlike what many people believe, especially in India, entries in Grand Prix meets are strictly according to the wishes of the meeting organisers. Quite often we hear the suggestion from people unaware of international athletics and its methods, "why don't you send them to Grand Prix meets in Europe?''

It is not so easy. The HSI association was useful for Anju getting the entries. Despite the hassles of getting a Shengen visa, Anju and Bobby plunged headlong into the European circuit. Her first Grand Prix medal, a silver, came at Stockholm, at 6.49. She had jumped farther at Rome (6.51) and Madrid (6.54), but placed poorer. She wound up the pre-Worlds run-up in 10th place at the Golden League in Berlin.

Was Anju going down the graph? Was she ready for the Worlds yet? Had Bobby run his wife down to such an extent that she was no longer able to compete? Had Powell over-burdened her with his six-hour-a-day routine? Doubts were naturally there.

"There were times this summer in Europe when I was prepared to pack up and leave for home. Not just training sessions, but running for visas, running for tickets, all these were affecting my mental make-up,'' Anju confided. "Bobby put his foot down.''

"We always had a dream, the dream of taking Indian athletics away from the routine sob stories. Of winning a big medal for our country. We had to achieve that, no matter how hard it was,'' Bobby would confide later. In the end the pleasure that the medal gave them was worth all the trouble they took. As Bobby trained his wife, alone in Paris, prior to the `official entry' into the `athletes village', he knew more than anyone else that Anju needed adequate rest after a hectic schedule in Europe.

"Bobby had done a wonderful job by the time she came to me,'' recalled Mike Powell in the interview room as the beaming three-some addressed the world media after the historic bronze. Powell had increased her run-up to gain more speed and according to Anju, her running rhythm had also improved.

There was no magic wand, though, with Powell. Nor did he claim that he was responsible for the medal. When Saudi Arabian Hussein Taher Al-Sabee, the Asian Games champion and one of his trainees, slumped to a fifth place in the men's final, with an 8.10 (against a PB of 8.33m), Powell must have been a worried man. Anju provided the relief.

"I know she could be a seven-metre jumper,'' said Powell. The American as well as Bobby talks of a medal of brighter hue for Anju at the Athens Olympics next year. Such talk would have sounded rather hollow just two months ago. Now, no one can ignore Anju's credentials.

"We know that almost the same set of jumpers would be there at Athens. Maybe Niurka Montalvo (Spain) will come back. Maybe Marion Jones will also be there. We have to aim for the bigger medal,'' said Bobby, always the motivator.

Anju derives strength not only from her natural talent but also from her husband's confidence in her ability. Bobby always felt, even in his younger days, that Indian athletes could achieve something at the global level, given the right encouragement at the right time. Many, of course, talk on the same lines. Very few go out to achieve anything.

Anju George being congratulated by Bobby George, her husband and coach. — Pic. AP-

Talking of timing, there were moments while Anju and Bobby were in the US when they wondered about the delay in getting the Government incentive awards promised for 2002 Asian Games and Commonwealth Games medal winners. "We need the money now, not when she has retired. We want to put it into her training,'' Bobby had said once while talking over phone from the US.

In the event, when the Government finally gave away the cheques, the promised amount could not be given for lack of funds! Thanks to the handsome cash awards presented by the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa, Bobby had enough in his bank account to pay off bills as they kept mounting, as he ran out of limits on his credit cards.

This is not to suggest that the Centre's assistance was not forthcoming. Indeed, without it, Bobby and Anju might not have ventured out. But then, Central assistance comes with strings attached; accounting procedures have to be followed. And much of the time, you have to claim it after you spend.

When you do win a medal in our country, officials will queue up to project Government schemes, ministers will get congratulatory messages issued through the Press Information Bureau, almost everyone will say "funds are no problem''. There will be felicitation functions and speeches. Few will care to remember that the couple had almost packed up and left Delhi after waiting for more than a week to get funds sanctioned last April. They had all but given up hope of going abroad. We have to cut the red tape and make life easier and simpler for outstanding sportspersons if we have to have world champions and medal winners. It is a different matter that Bobby's dogged perseverance and Anju's determination mocked at the indifference of the `babus'.

And then there is this little story, one keeps telling everyone, of the Moroccan King being put on `hold' in Paris. The day Jaouad Gharib won for Morocco a surprise gold in the men's marathon, the King of Morocco was on the line, on someone's mobile, minutes after the event. The ruler was politely told to hang on, as Gharib finished talking to the media. Gharib was congratulated just as Hicham El Guerrouj keeps getting those calls from his King.

Anju, in contrast, received no call from a minister or a Central Government officer, till 48 hours after the event. There was, however, a personal message from the President, A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, under his signature, delivered with official pomp and protocol in Paris. Anju and Bobby should cherish that message for long.

Even now, it is difficult to guess how many of us realise the worth of a World championship medal in athletics.

When we learn that the Asian athletics super power, China, had just two bronze, that countries like Romania, Norway, Finland, Bulgaria, Portugal and Nigeria, all of them having a better track record than India, ended up empty-handed this time, we begin to understand the true import of Anju's medal.

For those, who still think that it is no big deal, here is a quote from Mike Powell, the day he joined the couple and a few friends over dinner to toast Anju's success in Paris: "I am lucky to have two gold and a bronze medal from the World championships. But there are guys, as talented as I am, around the world, who haven't got a medal as yet. Looking at them, you realise, how tough it is to get a World championship medal.''

This was on August 31. A day earlier Powell had celebrated the 12th anniversary of his world record (8.95m) set at the Tokyo Worlds, with Anju's bronze to go as the icing. By no stretch of imagination could we have said that Anju's jump was Beamonesque. Her achievement surely was.