Giving a fresh thrust to Kerala's impetus

UNDOUBTEDLY long jumper Anju Bobby George's tryst with a World championship medal has catapulted her into an orbit all her own in the context of athletics in India.

UNDOUBTEDLY long jumper Anju Bobby George's tryst with a World championship medal has catapulted her into an orbit all her own in the context of athletics in India. And it is no coincidence that the champion athlete, the first from India to win a medal at a world championship, hails from Kerala, the state which has gained a reputation of producing some of the finest athletes over the years, men and women who have brought laurels to the country.

Indeed, if anything, this Changanassery girl, who by her own admission was a reluctant starter — her father virtually dragging her from the bed to the playfield — has emphatically given an answer to the question, ` Who after P.T. Usha?' The queen of Indian athletics, Usha, for all her trail-blazing achievements, failed to win that coveted one — a medal at a global level competition — when she missed a 400m hurdles bronze by one-hundredth of a second in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Anju has, that way, made amends for that great lady's slip by stamping India's name on the world stage.

What Anju has achieved needs to be seen against the background of how even leading Asian nations had struggled to make an impact in the championship. China, for instance, is considered a global power in athletics and yet this Asian giant could muster just two bronze medals at Paris. The outstanding effort should now force the critics to take a fresh look at India in world-level athletics from now on. Credit for Anju's success has to go to her own iron resolve to prove a point amidst world beaters and her husband for his steadfast belief that she had in her to excel — and most of all to their decision to head for US and learn a few things from the guru of jumps, the World record holder Mike Powell.

It is too early to say if Anju's success would trigger a revolution in Indian athletics but this much is clear: it will give a shot in the arm for Indian athletics and help change the attitude of Indian athletes. What is more, there is meaningful hope now of India grabbing that elusive athletics medal in Olympics, Anju having set her sights on Athens, just about a year away.

Indeed Anju's success, even as it triggers a sense of elation in the country, must rank something special for Kerala. Surely, would the athletics world have seen this lanky girl performing with success if not for coaches Thomas Master and Ouseph who must take credit for getting her into long jump. The major changes in her attitude, the willingness to improve and set high goals came after her marriage to Bobby George, himself an accomplished triple jumper. And in Bobby, acting as her personal coach, the Kerala tradition that started with Usha and O.M. Nambiar and Valsamma and A.K. Kutty has been revived. Of course, Nambiar and Kutty were like father figures for their wards but the two were instrumental in helping Usha and Valsamma script the early chapters of glory in Indian athletics.

In a way it was a continuation of the landmark efforts by T.C. Yohannan and Suresh Babu earlier at the Asian level. Yohannan's breathtaking 8.07m jump at the Teheran Asian Games was just an Asian record but put the Indian in the top five in the World. It is an effort which is still to be erased from the Indian record books. Suresh Babu had the rare distinction of winning the silver medal in the 1978 Commonwealth and in his time a decathlete of high potential. Premachandran, Angel Mary Joseph, Shiny Wilson (nee Abraham), Saramma, K.M. Beenamol... athletes of Kerala had been regularly gaining notice. It is a different matter that most of these talented athletes do not remain in the state, employment taking them away to various parts of the country.

What the success of these athletes portrays is the successful sports system in the state where the sports hostels and sports schools have done wonders to mobilise talent at the grassroots level. Whether it was ordinary fields in Idikki or Changanassery or the seashore of Payyoli that form the training ground, the sports infrastructure does the initial job of guiding young talent on the right lines. In recent times fears were expressed in various quarters that the earlier appetite for grooming talent was dying out, going by the paucity of performances from the state athletes. Anju's good show could not have come at a more opportune time to change this depressing scenario.

It would also give a fresh thrust to the efforts of Usha's trainees at her athletics school in Quilandy. Anju perhaps cannot be spoken of in the same breath yet as Usha or Milkha Singh but in recent times no one has caused such a sensation in Indian athletics as has Anju.