Andrew Amsan: How did you feel about Neeraj Chopra joining the club?
It has been a long wait. In 2003, no one believed we could win a medal at the World Championships. Then there was the pressure. If you watch the event live, you can experience it. Once you are on the track, you are alone representing your country and then have to produce your best in the final. You have to make decisions in split seconds, so you have to be that intelligent.
Andrew Amsan: You wanted to go home because of an injury but your coach and husband, Robert Bobby George, said, “Let’s go to Paris and watch the championship….”
We spent two months in the US. The training pattern was different there, we practised at a stretch, 10 to 4, four days a week and rested. Here we did two sessions, morning and evening. There was a heat wave and I was completely exhausted. My body was not ready to accept all this because I have that kidney issue (she has only one kidney). In the last competition (before the World Championships) in Germany, I was running but it was like I was moon-walking. My jumps were completely down. We met a doctor who told me to rest for six months because of the body condition. It was a shock. I told Bobby we would go back to India. He said, “Anyway we are in Europe. Paris is a new location for you and we’ll go and watch the competition.” I said, “Okay and we can go sightseeing as well.” Then it was magic. In 20 days, he made me a World Championship medallist.
Mihir Vasavda: You and Neeraj were in similar positions (fourth) after initial few attempts. At that stage, what goes on inside an athlete’s mind?
Sometimes, if our opponent is beyond our reach, then our mind and body will drain out. But for some of us, it’s the opposite. When the competition pressure is high, it pushes us. Such athletes have inner fire within them. Neeraj and I belong to this second category. We need good coaches as well because coaching is the key.
Mihir Vasavda: Abhinav Bindra has won an Olympic gold, PV Sindhu and Sushil Kumar have multiple Olympic medals. But the way Neeraj has taken off, do you think he is India’s best athlete ever?
It’s a matter of debate, actually. But my view is that athletics is the mother of all sports. There are qualification marks and only those from the entire world who get them will get to compete in a major competition. Maybe 50 to 60 countries are attaining that qualification mark and are participating. Just imagine running with Usain Bolt and winning a medal! So, the level of toughness determines the best athlete. In that sense, I can say that Neeraj is the best athlete India has ever produced.
Nihal Koshie: Tejaswin Shankar won India’s first-ever medal in high jump at the CWG. But he wasn’t selected initially though he met the qualification standard (at NCAA) because the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) said he didn’t compete in an inter-State competition. As vice-president of AFI, don’t you think the federation should have been a bit more sensitive to an athlete’s needs?
I am able to understand his problems. But some of our athletes perform well a year before a major tournament and aren’t able to maintain that peak level. So, keeping that in mind, like the US, we decided that all athletes, wherever they train, would have to compete in India and show that they are up to the mark. Only then would they be included in the team.
In Tejaswin’s case, he was not communicating properly with AFI, which did not give him the permission to excuse himself from the inter-State competition. When the selection committee met, we decided that only those who were in the competition would go to the CWG. By the time the court took up the case, we tried to take appropriate action and include him in the team but unfortunately, the clearance from organisers came at the last moment.
I understand that coming from the US, competing in India is a problem but this was a decision we had taken and even the president or vice-president couldn’t change it because the other athletes would have then questioned us. But Tejaswin is really talented. I must clarify one more thing. In India, we do not use our college-level games for selection purposes. So, if we’re not taking Indian university games performances into consideration, how can we accept any other country’s college games for trials?
Nihal Koshie: Young long jumper Shaili Singh is from Uttar Pradesh. Jumpers are usually associated with the South. DP Manu, javelin thrower, who is at CWG, is from Karnataka. Throwers are generally from the North. Does the emergence of Shaili and Manu show that talent scouts need to look beyond traditional states in a particular sport?
We used to believe that Kerala is good for sprints and jumps (mostly South India) and North India is good for throws but it’s changing. That was because all parts of the country were not getting proper support. In some parts, the girls were not able to come up before but now the awareness has increased. A lot of government programmes have encouraged kids. Not just Shaili, there are many jumpers from UP. India has a lot of talent and it’s not in a single pocket. Spotting it should be a pan-India effort.
Sriram Veera: Just ahead of your greatest moment in 2003, you found out that you had just one kidney, which affected your recovery process. How does an athlete cope with that kind of news?
As athletes, we think we are well-built and everything is perfect. Initially, I was really surprised how I had reached so far with such a health issue. Being an internal organ, we couldn’t diagnose it from the outside, so we didn’t know how the body would react when the training became intense. It showed me that I was not that great and had to deal with it.
I hid this issue from the outside world because had I revealed it and missed a medal, people and the media would say it was because of my condition. I didn’t want that sympathy.
Sriram Veera: You trained with Mike Powell ahead of the championships. Recently when he came to open your academy, he said you were near perfect in the air. What you needed was a little more speed in your run-up. This kind of professional help was very difficult in your time. Has it changed now?
A lot of changes have happened because there are three tiers now, the grassroot level, middle stage and the top level. There was actually a gap between the grassroot and the top level during our time. Now, it has been bridged by Khelo India and the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) at the junior and senior levels. So, if an athlete of my calibre wants to train with somebody and wants some exposure, it’s readily available. It was not the case during our time. Now from the Prime Minister’s Office, they are calling athletes, celebrating their victories and the entire country is aware of their achievements. Lawn Bowls players got a gold at the Commonwealth Games. I was not even aware of the sport but they are there because they got support. I am a little jealous now because we celebrate athletes before the Games and even after they win a medal.
Sriram Veera: You got Rs 3 lakh when you won the World Championships bronze…
I got only Rs 3 lakh and never got a chance to meet the Sports Minister. Our then President called and asked me how the competition was. The Rs 3 lakh was deposited into my account. But I got Rs 20 lakh for my performance at the Asian Games. Can you compare Asian Games and World Championships medals? Just imagine.
Sandeep Dwivedi: Do you think India lacks a sense of proportion when it celebrates its medals? There are certain events that aren’t world class but end up getting the same kind of exposure. Do you think for prizes there should be proportion – if it’s a World Championship medal for example, it should be appreciated more?
The official World Championships and Olympics are a different tier and should be segregated. The Commonwealth and the Asian Games should be next. But unfortunately, some CWG events, like you said, don’t have the same level of competition while the Asian Games do have that. In sports like badminton and weight-lifting, the Asian Games are a tougher competition but in athletics, the Commonwealth Games are tougher. But we cannot bring prize money down based on competitions.
In my time, the Asian Games would get more importance than the World Championship. My World Championship medal was the first the country ever won but people weren’t ready to accept that. I’m very happy that after Neeraj won his medal, people started celebrating my victory as well after 19 years. Now people realise, “Oh Anju also got a medal 19 years ago.”
Sandeep Dwivedi: Do we have enough good coaches in India, like say Bobby, and he is still producing champions? Everywhere in the world, techniques are changing. American athletes, for example, are not running the same way as in the previous Olympics. They are changing and taking advantage of research. That isn’t happening in India.
Unfortunately, it is not the fault of our coaches. They are still following what they learnt 20-30 years ago because they aren’t getting a chance to refresh their knowledge. But do you think if we hire an American coach, he will provide athletes with all the knowledge? No, he will hide certain things. He will ask athletes to run a certain way but won’t tell them why. We are very good at technical events and winning medals at the world and Olympic levels. If we can do research according to our body and our Indian system, that will help the athlete and coaches. The book says to lift your hand and leg but nobody will teach us why we need to lift the hand or why we need to lift the leg. If we can do research in India and then educate our coaches, then we will definitely be winners. Bobby is a mechanical engineer and long jump is all about biomechanics. He can create and develop his own ideas. He’s developing something just for Shaili and that is because of his background.
Sandeep Dwivedi: Do you think we have more Bobbys? He’s an engineer and expert, overall a rare guy. Rupal Chaudhary’s (medallist at World U-20 Championship) coach has said that athletes are getting offers from the collegiate system in the US to train over there. What would you advise?
Most of our talented athletes are not coming back as coaches. Only very rare species like Bobby do. To an extent, coaching is not a glamorous job. Only now they are getting fame. Badminton ace Pullela Gopichand was known but became more renowned after his protégé PV Sindhu won medals. Bobby’s name also came up after I won a medal. Yes, more than an athlete, the coach should have IQ.
Andrew Amsan: Whenever Bobby recruits new talent, he gives them some money to get some apparel. How important is it for an athlete to look well and speak confidently?
Bobby is a perfectionist and everything, from coaching to appearances, has to be proper. Whenever a new athlete joins, he asks them to buy new attire, colourful clothes. Recently I tweeted that during my first Commonwealth Games, I wore Neelam J Singh’s competition kit because someone had stolen mine. It was double the size. I had to adjust the kit with pins and with each jump, the pins would poke me. I could hear people whispering about my attire and where I came from. I felt like a buffoon. I was in the sixth position and at that moment, I decided that I was not a bad jumper and that my ability could not be judged by my attire.
We are performers but we also need to express ourselves. If I’m not able to talk to you, then how will you know about my emotions and my struggle? These athletes come from humble backgrounds but as a mentor, it is my duty to make sure these athletes talk like me and dress like me.
There was one more instance at the Helsinki World Championships where I missed a medal by just 3 cm. I had just one white competition kit with the tricolour on the sides. It started raining, the three colours ran all over and my American friends said: “Anju, this is so amazing! Your jersey is changing colour.” That was the kind of support we got those days.
Tushar Bhaduri: Now we have medals in judo and Tejaswin’s medal in high jump. Do you think it’s a good sign that medals are being diversified?
Earlier, it was an individual struggle to come up, because there was no collective support. But now, there is proper planning and support in India. Why is China getting more medals? Because they are properly strategizing for events. Besides, they are good at fielding teams in disciplines where there’s less competition.
Even at TOPS, we support newer sports like fencing and cycling. It’s not like only Sindhu is getting medals and we are only watching shuttle. If somebody doesn’t like shuttle, they can go and watch hockey or cycling, which was not the case before.
Nihal Koshie: Our athletes are doing very well but doping has become a big issue because both top athletes and juniors have tested positive. How can this issue be tackled?
It is a big issue in our country now. There are people who always tend to go for shortcuts. But the positive thing is that the Bill passed in Parliament makes NADA (National Anti-Doping Agency) a statutory body, so they can work on their own. They will get more funds and they plan to set up more testing labs in the country.
But if someone wants to take drugs, they will do it. These kinds of substances (performance-enhancing drugs) were not available in India before. Neither was there any knowledge about it. But now, everything is available at your fingertips.
If you Google, you can get all the details about such medicines. So, that’s why awareness is penetrating to the junior level. And some of the medicines, which are available only in Russia or some European countries, are coming to India. How are they reaching here? They are coming through airports. We can stop it there when it comes.
Famous athletes getting caught is not just news in India but everywhere. I used to think Marion Jones was an extraordinary athlete, winning multiple medals at the Olympics. Then I realised that she was not that great. She was just cheating. Like crime, we can’t stop it completely but still to an extent, we can prevent doping.