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Anju George: A first for India

When Anju Bobby George won a surprise bronze with her fifth round effort 6.70m at the World Championships in Paris, she became the first ever medallist for her native India in a global track and field competition. Norris Pritam tells us more about this charming 26-year old woman

Cheeranchira is a remote village in Kerala, a state in the southern tip of India. Touching the Arabian Sea, Kerala is generally humid with plenty of rainfall. In the world market, the region is known for rubber and cashew plantation, coir and tea. But even in India, a country with a billion people, not many had heard of Cheeranchira till Anju George won the Long Jump bronze medal at the World Championships in Paris.
 
Predominantly rice and fish eaters, people of Kerala are lithe and springy. Genetically similar to the Negroid, Malyalees, as the natives from this coastal state are referred to, excel in jumps and sprint. It was therefore natural for Anju to follow her peers.
 
Born on 19 April 1977, in Cheeranchira, Anju went to Lisieux Primary School like most kids in her village. True to her Zodiac sign, Aries, she was innocent yet determined to excel even as a five-year-old in class one. She jumped just over one metre in Long Jump and ran some 20 metre sprint events. Two years later, in class three, she jumped three metres to win her maiden prize of a cup and saucer! Sister Gracelin of the Lisieux School understood Anju’s love for sports. She took her to town for almost all sports meets and it was there that Anju’s journey to stardom began.
 
Anju was only seven when P T Usha, another star athlete from Kerala, hit the headlines for finishing fourth in the women’s 400 metres Hurdles at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. Her pictures appeared in possibly all the newspapers and magazines in India. Anju also saw them in her village and her impressionable mind had already secretly decided to take up athletics seriously.
 
With her growing ambition, Anju needed better facilities. But there were none in her humble surroundings. A decent playground was more than 10 kilometres away. Her father, K T Markose made it a point to take her there on a bicycle. But this was possible only when he could spare time from his modest catering business. Getting up in the morning was another problem for her. “I used to cry every day when my mother woke me up at 5,’’ she says. Looking back, she knows it was all worth it.

As a junior athlete, Anju began winning minor competitions in her village and state but she had to pay a price. K P Thomas, an athletics coach in the state, got her admitted to a school that had better facilities. But it was more than 50km away from home. Thirteen-year-old Anju had to leave her parents and stay at Thomas household to pursue athletics. The sacrifice paid. Medals began pouring in whatever discipline she competed in.
 
Ultimately it was in college that she focused on the Long Jump and at the same time, graduated in economics in first class. A bright student all through, she says: “Economics is nothing.” A rare combination of brain and brawn.

In 1996, she met triple jumper Bobby George at the national coaching camp in Bangalore. They liked each other. “It wasn’t love at first sight,’’ Anju would say now. But after four years of courtship, they got married. In the meantime, husband Bobby became her coach too.
 
An Indian national record holder at 6.74 metres, set on 4 June 2001, Anju almost gave up jumping when she got injured just before her marriage. She had to skip the Olympic Games in Sydney, and later, the World Championships in Edmonton due to injury. But it was husband Bobby’s prodding and family support that took her back to the track. This time without a miss. She won bronze at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester in 2002 and in the same year became Asian Games Long Jump champion in Busan, South Korea. Both were maiden achievements for an Indian woman.
 
In May 2003, Anju and Bobby reached Fullerton, California, to train under World record holder Mike Powell on their own initiative. A training stint in the US and competitions in Grand Prix meetings in Europe before the World Championships transformed Anju. Her confidence grew and soon names likes Heike Dreschler, Tatyana Kotova, Eva Goulbourne and Fiona May were just fellow competitors and not terrors. It was with this feeling that she entered the competition in Paris.
 
She also realised what it meant to look good. Unlike her Indian teammates, she began wearing light make up even during competitions – perhaps to gather the vital confidence. Even when she landed at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport from Paris, her mascara, lip-gloss and blush on reflected her new persona. She admitted she had spent quite some time “getting ready’’ for the landing. And it was indeed a smooth landing. She faced the multitude of TV crews and written press journalists with aplomb. In a dark business suit, she looked even taller than her height.

A great fan of Marion Jones, Anju also learnt baking pizzas in the US. “It was our staple diet,’’ she says now.
 
Born in a Jacobite Christian family, Anju is a believer. She became a Catholic after her marriage to Bobby. A Mother Mary’s figurine is a must in her kit bag. In Paris, during the competition, she looked at it and said prayers while her mother Gracy did the same in a church, thousands of miles away in her native Kerala. In Rome, for the Golden Gala Meet this summer, Anju visited the Vatican and found it “just like Taj Mahal.”

Despite her strong belief, Anju is a liberal. For Bobby and her, sport and fair competition are a religion. And for that, Anju has even delayed motherhood. “Maybe after Athens,’’ she almost whispers.

In India, where track and field stars don’t enjoy celebrity status like cricket players, athletes depend on government jobs. Anju is no exception. She is an officer in the Customs and Excise department. Despite her new status as the only Indian medallist in a global track and field championship, she does not have any commercial sponsorships or endorsements. A personal message from the President of India, Dr Abdul Kalam, in Paris and later an audience with him in New Delhi is what she considers as the best trophies. A compliment each from Jonathan Edwards and Tom Tellez is also what she likes to cherish.

In a year when Indian sports is on a new high, she has emerged as an icon. Soon after her arrival from Paris, media hardly gave her a free moment. There were a series of TV and radio interviews from local FM Radio stations to national TV channels. She made headlines in all national dailies and weekly magazines.

Has it dawned on her that she’s a star now? “I’m still there,” she replies without batting an eyelid, pointing at the ground. But, the constant ring of her cell phone, seeking appointments, comes almost as a reminder that a star is born. But Anju is carefree and childlike, happy to open her gifts after the day’s celebrations are over. End of the day, she’s thrown off her high-heel shoes, and sitting on a sofa with her feet up, at a friend’s place in New Delhi.

Anju’s prize money in the past few weeks has been considerable. 5000 Euros at the Golden Gala in Rome, 4800 Euros for her silver medal at the D N Galan Meet in Stockholm, 2000 Euros for a 6th place in Madrid, $ 20,000 for a 3rd place in Paris and $5000 for a 5th place in the World Athletics Finals in Monaco. Add to that another US $ 30,000 from the Government of India and the Chief Minister of her state.

All this seemed impossible for an Indian athlete until a few weeks ago. Even at St Denis, where she achieved the rare feat for an Indian, the official announcer seemed unconvinced. “Anju George from Indonesia,” he kept announcing! The abbreviation IND could be anything but India for him. Anju is pretty much sure the same mistake will not be made in Athens next year!

Anju and Bobby made sacrifices for the achievement. What would you say, for example, if you heard that they didn’t even visit the Eiffel Tower during their fortnight-stay in Paris? “There was no time for that,” she says without much regret. It was practice, practice and more practice.

And then a string of felicitation functions in the Indian Captial New Delhi, kept her away from her parents. But this is the price which Anju is willing to pay even though she would love to go back to her roots.

A former sports correspondent for the Indian Express, Norris Pritam is currently a freelance journalist and radio and TV commentator

Published in IAAF Magazine Issue 4 - 2003