Under a clear blue sky in sunny Trivandrum, far away from the foggy wintery morning of his hometown in Bhopal, long jumper Ankit Sharma is ready for the big leap. Preparations are in full swing and the countdown has begun. In less than four months, Ankit will take on some of the world's very best talent, at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia. A medal at this big event is going to be stairway to fame and money, but, a minor slip up and Ankit might be consigned to yet another frustrating wait for adulation and recognition. He has seen the trials and tribulations of an athlete from close quarters.
While growing up, Ankit knew the farm bordering their own, in Budhara village in Morena, belonged to a retired army man. The villagers often discussed in hushed tones how the army man's father who originally owned these fields had fallen to bad times and had become a baghi or a dacoit. It needed a Bollywood film a couple of years ago for Ankit, by then one of India's promising long jumpers, to realise that he had actually grown up beside the farmland owned by Pan Singh Tomar- a tragic figure of Indian sports. The life of this seven time national steeplechase champion has been well documented as fate and circumstances conspired to turn Pan Singh into a wanted criminal, who later got killed in a police encounter.
"I do not want to slip into anonymity. National records and representing the country in Olympics are proud moments but these are just the stepping stones. I live every day and wake up every morning dreaming about an Olympic medal", says Ankit. His immediate targets are the Commonwealth Games to be staged in Gold Coast, Australia, next year followed by the Asian Games in Jakarta, a few months later. "I am in Trivandrum as it has a moderate climate. It is close to the sea making it perfect for my off-season training,'' says the 25 year old training under the watchful eyes of India's jump coach Bedros Bedrosian from Romania.
The last couple of seasons have been good for Ankit. He created a new national long jump record of 8.19 meters breaking the existing mark of 8.09 meters held by K Premkumar. It earned him a ticket to Rio Olympics. "I could not adjust to the cold conditions in Rio. After two foul jumps, I was under tremendous pressure and could only register a leap of 7.67 meters, way below my best. Because of the fouls (only 3 are allowed in the qualification stages), I took off from around 40-50 centimeters before jumping the board in my third and final attempt,'' he says.
Ankit has set his targets of 8.30-8.35 meters for the Commonwealth Games which would make him a firm favourite for a medal. While Sports Authority of India's, Laxmibai National College of Physical Education in Trivandrum will be his training ground for the next couple of weeks, he is looking to travel to South Africa to train at the High Performance Centre in Pretoria. "I have trained here before with the silver medallist at the Rio Olympics Luvo Manyonga and it's a perfect place to test myself against some of the best in the business. Hopefully Sports Authority of India will offer some financial assistance for me to train here. I have also saved some money of my own to make my dream come true'', says Ankit.
Anju Bobby George has been the lone Indian long jumper to have made a big mark on the international stage. Her two medals in 2003 and 2005 are the only medals Indian athletes have ever won at World Championships. Her silver at the world meet in 2005 was upgraded to gold after Tatyana Kotova of Russia was disqualified for testing positive for a banned substance.
In the men's long jump, there has not been much to cheer about for India barring TC Youhanan's gold medal effort at the Tehran Asian Games more than 42 years ago.
"I think the reason for the medal drought is because there is not enough competition at the domestic level. It is only when we compete at international meets or train abroad that we are truly tested or pushed to better our existing marks. Exposure is the key to improve results", says Ankit.