The story till then
Ever since the heady days of the 1980s and '90s, when PT Usha commanded the Asian Games with her performances and made fourth place at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, India's search for its next star athlete tended to focus on the track. The country's most successful and recognisable female track stars had eased themselves gradually into retirement, and while their persevering successors did well at the Asian level, they went no higher. Little attention was paid to a heptathlete from Kerala who had decided to switch to the long jump and triple jump.
A double gold winner at the National Games, Anju Bobby George held national records for both events. An ankle injury had kept her out of the 2000 Sydney Olympics and public attention, but from 2001, still under the radar, she was making the biggest strides in her career along with her husband and coach, Bobby George. A long jump gold medal at the 2002 Busan Asian Games and a rise up the international rankings offered signs of what was to come.
After a season in Europe with her husband-coach and a spell of training with world long jump champion Mike Powell, George made it to the 2003 World Championships final on a cold and drizzly August evening at Paris' Stade de France in Saint-Denis. The qualifiers had cut the defending champion Fiona May of Italy and the 2002 Commonwealth champion Elva Goulbourne of Jamaica out of the fray. The finals field featured world champion heptathlete Eunice Barber of France, and Olympic medallist and European champion Tatyana Kotova of Russia. But George's closest rival over the six-jump final was to be Jade Johnson of Britain, the silver medallist at the Manchester Commonwealth Games, where George had taken bronze.
George's 6.61m on her first jump was improved by Johnson's 6.63m and pushed her to fourth position. On jump No. 5, she thought she had been "flat". "I don't know how I landed, my legs were in a tangle, I thought," she said. On landing, she looked stricken, her head dropped and she hit the sand in frustration. When the numbers appeared, they showed 6.70m, four centimetres short of the national record and her season's best. But ahead of Johnson, into third place and medal contention.
When Johnson couldn't match that over her next three jumps, George had made her big leap into Indian sporting history, becoming the first Indian to win a medal at the World Championships.
"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 George, Anju's coach and husband
"She still had a lot more in her. She had great jumping ability and way better landing than I had. She needed more speed and I didn't have enough time to teach her that. She was sure of herself when she was on the field."
- Mike Powell, world long jump record holder
The story since
After Paris, Anju Bobby George remained India's most successful medal winner on the world stage. At the Athens Olympics in 2004, she made the finals and broke the national long jump record with 6.83m, which still stands. In 2005, she won a long jump silver at the World Athletics Final in Monte Carlo. Nine years later that was upgraded to gold because of a drugs test failed by the gold medallist Tatyana Kotova.
After Anju's retirement, India's performances in track and field have grown with promising consistency, if not with world medals. At the 2012 London Olympics, discus thrower Vikas Gowda made the finals and race walker KT Irfan finished tenth and broke the national record in the 20km walk. India's 4x400m women's relay team are once again amongst the top two teams in Asia along with the Chinese. Yet a world-class medallist and a breakout star is still to be found.