India's Olympic sports history was exquisitely summed up by a
scene at last summer's World Track and Field Championships in
Paris. After Anju Bobby George was awarded the bronze medal in
the long jump, she went below the stands and approached a meet
official, who gave her a puzzled look. "I am here for the press
conference," George said, reaching around her neck to grab the
evidence. "Here, I have a medal."
When you come from a country of one billion people that has won
only 15 Olympic medals--none in track and field--you sometimes
have to explain that you really are a world-class long jumper.
George's bumpy journey to that pinnacle began in third grade,
when she won a cup and saucer for jumping more than three meters
at school in Cheeranchira, a remote village abutting the Arabian
Sea near India's southernmost tip. When he had the time, Anju's
dad, K.T. Markose, the rare Indian father who encouraged his
daughter to become an athlete, would wake her at 5 a.m. and ferry
her six miles by bike to the nearest playground so she could run.
She improved more after leaving home at age 13 and attending a
boarding school 30 miles away that had a dirt track.
In 2000 George trained for her country's Olympic trials by
jumping from a dirt runway into a mud pit; a synthetic running
surface and dry sand were not available in the facility in the
southern state of Nagercoil. George landed awkwardly on a clump
of mud on one attempt and injured her right ankle. Still ailing
days later, she jumped poorly at the trials and failed to make
the team for Sydney.
It was a struggle to continue competing. George's $10,000 salary
from her job as a customs officer was ample by Indian standards
but meager for an athlete who wants to pay for overseas training
and travel. Her attempts to secure financial backing were largely
futile; she found that most shoe and soft-drink sponsorships in
India were already promised to cricket and field hockey players.
"When an athlete reaches a certain level in the States, you have
one person for your technique, one for your diet, one to arrange
your transportation," says George, 27. "In India we do not have a
person to hold the phone for you."
George bounced back in 2002 to win bronze in the Commonwealth
Games and gold in the Asian Games. Late that year, through
intermediaries, she and her husband-coach, Bobby, began making
arrangements to work with Mike Powell, the world-record holder
who was coaching at Cal State-Fullerton. In March 2003 the
Georges arrived in California for four months of training. "Mike
made some technical changes," she says, "but mostly he made me
believe I could jump far. He told me not to hold back."
At the worlds last summer George nailed a stunning fifth-round
jump of 21' 11 3/4" to win India's first track and field medal
at a major international meet. She returned home to a $50,000
stipend from the government and an audience with president Abdul
Kalam, who told her, "Now we must change the color of the medal."
Though stiffer competition may prevent George from reaching the
podium in Athens, she knows a medal would help lead to
improvements in her country's dismal athletic facilities--one of
her missions. "The government and the sponsors will care," she
says. "I have not left my mark. I can climb more mountains, you
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO (GEORGE) Last year George flew 21' 11 3/4" to win India's first-ever medalat worlds.