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Anju Bobby George: India’s 2024 Olympics Aim Is Reaching Double-Digits in Medals

In an interview with The Quint, Anju Bobby George underlined India's plans for the 2024 Olympics.

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When Anju Bobby George became the first Indian athlete to win a World Championships medal, with her bronze triumph at Paris in 2003, athletics was not regarded as among India’s strong suits. Since British-Indian athlete Norman Pritchard’s two silver medals in 1900, no Indian had won an Olympic medal in athletics.

That is, until Neeraj Chopra ended the century-long drought at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, by winning the gold medal in javelin throw. The progress has been unceasing since then, with the nation winning eight athletics medals at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, followed by 29 athletics medals at the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou.

Speaking with The Quint, Anju Bobby George, who is now working as the vice-president of the Athletics Federation of India (AFI), and also running her foundation, spoke about India’s short-term target – for the 2024 Olympics, and also the long-term vision – for the 2036 Olympics, which could be held in India.

Here are the excerpts:

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The last couple of years have been rewarding for Indian athletics. We won 29 athletics medals at the Asian Games, and 8 at the Commonwealth Games. Looking forward to the 2024 Olympics, can you predict India’s medals count in athletics?

A prediction is not possible when it comes to the Olympics, honestly speaking. Because it is the highest event in sports and every athlete dreams of getting an Olympic medal. Every country takes pride in Olympic medals, so this event is like a global war. I am not going to predict how many medals we can win, but we know which are the athletes who are going to perform well for us, and which are the events in which we will do well.

I am extremely proud to be a part of the Athletics Federation of India (AFI). What we are seeing now is the result of what the AFI has been doing for the last two years. In most of the events which are on AFI’s priority list, our athletes are doing well on the global stage and the bench strength is also good. Everybody knows that winning a medal at the Olympics is huge.

It is interesting that the AFI has earmarked a few favourites to win medals at the Olympics. Who are those athletes, and which are the events should we look forward to?

Neeraj Chopra is there as a pillar for us. We have two entries in javelin. Besides that, our jumpers and our relay teams are doing well. Every athlete is doing well in those events, with the support of the government, the system and their sponsors. 

If I talk about the other events, we are doing well in shooting, boxing, wrestling, badminton – the list is big. Everyone is gearing up for the Olympics, and I hope 2024 will be a great year for us. We are aiming for double digits. It will be a huge thing but that is the reality.

In javelin throw, Kishore Jena is there alongside Neeraj. Long jumper Murali Sreeshankar was a big medal hope for us, but unfortunately, he got injured and had to be operated on. It will take him a year to return to competitions. Our relay teams have also been performing extremely well, they did well at the World Athletics Relays. Besides that, if anyone comes in the best of eight in other events, that will be a great show for us.

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When you became the first Indian athlete to win a World Championships medal, back in 2003, the nation was not doing particularly great in athletics. But over the last two decades, we have seen staggering development. You have seen it from close quarters as well, being associated with the AFI. What have been the major reasons behind our improvement?

Back then, the support we got was very limited, and the infrastructure was also very minimal. Besides that, the awareness was also not great. When I went to the World Championships, no one imagined that an Indian was going to win a medal. It was a struggle for me to go to the USA for training, because no one believed an Indian could do well in a Grand Prix competition. Initially, I also struggled to get entry into the Diamond League competitions. Besides that, support from private companies was also limited. I was very lucky that Nike supported me.

But if you see the scenario now, every athlete is supported by private companies. Our academy is supported by Coca-Cola India through its foundation, and they are among the first supporters who gave me a great hand. They are supporting the country’s athletes with essential amenities and training equipment as part of its three-year partnership with the Anju Bobby Sports Foundation. Most of our infrastructure is developed by them, from water harvesting to gym equipment. This partnership aligns with Coca-Cola India's #SheTheDifference campaign. When an athlete gets support from such a company, it works as a great motivator. 

Definitely, the support from the government is also great. I am a part of the Mission Olympic Cell (MOC) – the way we are getting involved in all sports and how we are calculating and supporting athletes is a game-changer.

Athletics is very expensive, it requires huge investment. For an athlete who comes from a humble background, to go to the competitions and buy all the equipment – they have to spend a lot of money. So, they need the private sector to support them.

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15 female athletes stood on the podium representing India at the 2022 Asian Games. Do you think their achievements will trigger a mindset shift among the parents, who will now be more welcoming to their girls taking up athletics as a viable career option?

Initially, the parents had a fear factor. They thought that if they sent their kids for athletics, what would their future be? But now we are seeing that from every corner, even from the remote villages, kids are coming up. The government is also supportive, so the parents know that if the kids do well, they will be placed under many government schemes.

Our women athletes are doing great. They are winning Olympic medals and World Championships medals. The way they are being recognised and celebrated is visible everywhere. Sports is now a business, where it is not only about winning medals. It also provides jobs and other opportunities.

The 2036 Olympics will be held in India, so we will be seeing great changes. I think these upcoming years will be golden years for our country.

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So, would you say that the 2036 Olympics happening in India is a realistic possibility?

Definitely, because our Prime Minister has already shown interest in bringing the Olympics to India. I think the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will accept that. We have all the infrastructure and support in India, and we have already started the work. So, there is no doubt that India will host the 2036 Olympics.

I feel that will be a game-changer. The priorities will change, the support will change as more and more corporates get into sports, because for them, it is a big business and social responsibility opportunity. The entire environment will change in sports.

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Let’s talk about your organisation – the Anju Bobby George Foundation. What made you embark on this journey, and which sectors are you working on?

The first thought came in 2015, and within two years, I got the sanction from the government. I started here in Bengaluru. 

What I am, where I am today, is all because of sports. So, it is now my turn to give it back, especially to the women athletes. I thought that if I could support talented athletes who are less fortunate, it would be great. We picked 16 athletes of various ages from all over the country, and now they are doing extremely well. Shaili Singh is our star athlete, she recently won a Junior World Championships medal.

Initially, it was a struggle, because the ground was on lease. I had to pay a lease of Rs 5 crore for the ground, and a few more crores for setting up the infrastructure. But luckily, the sponsors chipped in.

I believe this is a chain reaction. If I am supporting a girl, I hope that she will support the kids from the next generation. This will ensure a continuous process. My dream was to win an Olympic medal. I missed that, but I am still chasing the dream. I believe one of my wards will bring me that medal one day. That is my ultimate aim. It is a collective effort. The coaches, sponsors and my family are involved. We are enjoying it, and so are the athletes.

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The last time India won more than one athletics medal in a single edition of the Olympics was way back in 1900. Coincidentally, the host city was Paris on that occasion as well. We are going back to Paris now, having laid the foundation in Hangzhou last year. Do you have the feeling that India will win multiple athletics medals this time?

I think Paris is lucky for India. We got two athletics medals from Paris in the Olympics long back, and after that, I got India’s first global medal in Paris as well. The chances of winning more than one medal in athletics this time are very realistic. We have Neeraj Chopra there, of course, and then there are others I have mentioned. I hope Paris will be a lucky place for us again.

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We have spoken about what led to India’s development in athletics, but from the broader perspective, we are still lagging behind some nations. How do you think we can bridge this gap, keeping the 2036 Olympics as our primary focus?

Bridging that gap will be a huge task. Previously, India was nowhere, not only in sports but in other sectors also. Slowly, we are going into the elite group in all sectors, including sports. The 2036 Olympics is still 12 years away – definitely, India’s progress will reflect in sports also.

Our aim is to be in the best of six in medals tally, or at least the best of eight. The planning for the 2036 Olympics has already started, and I am not talking only about the infrastructure. We are discussing how we can include more events, how we can win more medals, and what are the areas where we are lacking. 

Now, we have a lot of international coaches, but we are planning to change that. We want to bring in more Indian coaches, because we need them in our ecosystem. It is altogether a developmental project for what we are aiming for. Definitely, we will get there.

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