After being elevated to a World ﬁnal gold, Anju and Bobby George have set a new goal.
Four-month-old Andrea is amused. She giggles and chirps as mum Anju Bobby George speaks about her recent gold. “Her tummy is full. That’s the reason for this joy,” Anju offers. “Oh! and the gold, I am indeed happy that truth has prevailed. But as they say, justice delayed is justice denied, right?”
In the dimly lit, well-furnished parlour at Choice House in Kochi, Anju recollects the 2005 World Athletics Final in Monte Carlo, where she finished with silver, with a touch of nonchalance. “I knew those who finished before me were doing it (doping). But we (she and husband Bobby) did not have answers then. It is almost impossible to win all the world medals being clean,” she says. After Russia’s Tatyana Kotova was disqualified this January for testing positive for a steroid, Anju was upgraded to gold.
The first Indian athlete to win a medal in a World Championship in Athletics, a long jump bronze in Paris, 2003, Anju says her achievements seem brighter in collective consciousness because “people in India then had not thought beyond Asian-level achievements in athletics”. She credits Bobby wholeheartedly. “I remember when he used to tell me about a world medal, I would laugh. But he believed in my abilities.”
Anju started training with Bobby, a national champion in triple jump himself, in 1998. “In Kerala, at that time, we had to face a lot of criticism. People gossiped when our training sessions went beyond 6 p.m. But we had a goal. There was no cinematic romance. Our whole lives have been on the ground,” she says. Anju married Bobby in the year 2000, after which, according to Anju, her career took off. At the same time, she attributes her success to fate. “I was at the right place at the right time. And at every level, I had people who supported me.”
Born in Changanassery, Anju started training at the age of eight. “My father was uninhibitedly ambitious about his daughter. He wanted to see my picture in the newspapers.” She would have to be on the ground for practice at 4.30 a.m. and from there would go straight to school. “It is strange that I never thought of my mother then. Imagine preparing food that early, every day,” Anju says.
Between 2003 and 2008, Anju was at the pinnacle of her career, always featuring in the top eight. The struggle of the preceding years only seems unbearable in retrospect. “Then there was hardly any time to think. All I was doing was training.” As any sportsperson of her calibre, Anju says, she cannot forget her failures. “Each time they pop up in my mind, I wince,” she says. An ankle injury she suffered in 1998 is one of them. She believes the injury, on her take-off leg, prevented her from achieving twice as much. “I worked and won on that ankle. But I know I have not achieved my full potential.”
At 5’10, Anju is a stately presence. “I’ve really gained weight now,” she says, “with all the cooking and eating I am doing.” Anju and Bobby are taking a four-year break and are settled in Bangalore with their children (their elder son is Aaron, 4). Being a doting parent is important, she says: “This is the time the children need us the most.”
While Anju seems perfectly relaxed, Robert Bobby George is busy planning and working towards another dream. “It is too early to say anything now. But I feel it is my duty to educate coaches in India. Also, to identify and train young talents. Anything we do will be in collaboration with the Government, as training in athletics requires huge infrastructure, starting with a 4-km track,” he says.
Unlike Anju, he is not one to lick his wounds. “As far as I am concerned, psychologically, we are the winners at the 2004 Athens Olympics.” (Anju finished sixth with 6.83 m). “I am hopeful, too. The results could change,” referring to the re-testing of athletes.
Everything starts with a dream, he believes. “If you look at a champion’s life, somebody would have had a dream about him/her. I had a dream for Anju,” he says. Being coach was the hardest job, as he had to be constantly motivated. “When she is on the field, she is always looking at me for support. Any slight change in my demeanour would affect her. It is not performance alone. It is a psychological battle,” he says. “Everyone is quick to criticise. Imagine an international event, in a strange country, in a stadium with one-lakh capacity and being the only Indian sitting in the gallery. It is a lonely battle.”
A mechanical engineer by qualification, Bobby has always been a passionate sportsman. However, he shifted his focus to coaching. “In 2001, I was a performing athlete as well as a trainer. I had a huge responsibility on my shoulders.”
Sport, he says, is never about winning alone. “If there were no sports and arts in the world, life would have been excruciatingly boring. In that sense, we sportspersons are entertainers, too.”