Formula for success


Anju with her husband-coach Bobby George on arrival in New Delhi after winning the silver medal in the World Athletics Final at Monaco recently.-SANDEEP SAXENA

CALL it overconfidence or call it self-belief, there is this streak in Bobby George that refuses to accept that anything is impossible.

Maybe, that is the way the George brothers have been brought up back home in Peravoor, Kannur district, Kerala. "Everything is possible" must be the family motto.

Anju George, the current athletics face of India on the international stage, just follows Bobby's commands. He is her coach, manager and masseur. He is her motivator, friend, philosopher, agent and escort. And he pushes her beyond imagination.

But he knows her limits.

"You can't push your trainee beyond a point. She needed the extra break this year. How long could she have continued? She has been at it from 2001, almost without a break," he said in answer to a query about the late start she had this year.

"The Olympics effort had drained her mentally and physically," Bobby added as he explained the reasons for the late start. It was past midnight that day at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi. She had just returned with the silver from the World Athletics Final in Monaco, her second biggest achievement in a decade-long career.

Bobby should have said, "drained us" and he would not have been off the mark. Bobby and Anju invariably talk in plural. `We' rather than `she' or `he'. "We have to qualify for the World Athletics Final, we have to catch up with the Russians; we have to improve our ranking; we have to plan for next year... " That is the way it goes much of the time.

"It is only because one is young that one can do this running around, this travelling. The body needs a break and I have been trying to get some much-needed rest," says Bobby. He knows of course that Anju needs more rest though she shrugs off any suggestion that the dash from Incheon to Delhi to Frankfurt to Nice to Monaco and back must have been very taxing. "We are used to it," she tells a scribe.

"There was a stage (close to the Paris Worlds) when I felt like leaving everything and going home. The strain of practising, running around for everything you needed, uncertainties about visas, it was proving a little too much," Anju confided a day after she won that history-making World Championship bronze at the Stade de France in August, 2003.

But they took a break from the competitions and intense training, left their temporary training base in Madrid and came over to Paris. Slowly, but steadily, Anju was back to her competition trim. The rest is history.

"It really feels good to have a medal from a competition that had the best in the world," said Anju after her performance in Monaco.-AP

The Olympic year proved tougher. Expectations had soared by then, expectations of that elusive Olympic medal. Not even Milkha Singh or P.T. Usha had achieved that, though they had come agonisingly close to it.

Can Anju do it? "Why not?" was always the counter from Bobby.

As Bobby looks back, there is disappointment that Anju couldn't get the Olympic medal the country was waiting for, despite a career-best 6.83. There is also pride at the same time that she gave it her best shot despite several hurdles and health problems.

"This year the preparations weren't as good as the Olympic year," says Anju. She had started with a modest 6.42m in the Doha Grand Prix and looked to be reaching nowhere by the time the Helsinki World Championships came in August.

Still, Bobby's confidence and Anju's enthusiasm suggested that there could be a medal. True to their promise, Anju touched a season best of 6.66 metres, but finished fifth, the lesser known American, Tianna Madison, taking the gold at 6.89, with Russian Tatyana Kotova (6.79m) and Frenchwoman Eunice Barber (6.76m) winning the silver and bronze.

"I put up my best fight in the worst climate," said Anju. In the rain and cold of Helsinki, where she needed three windcheaters to protect her, it was a miracle that she managed four other jumps of over 6.50.

Just as it had happened, in the run-up to the Olympics, the topic of a foreign coach cropped up all over again. In 2003, when Anju trained for three months in the US under world record holder Mike Powell, she did gain in confidence and attracted more media attention. There wasn't anything new that Powell taught her, but she as well as Bobby was thankful to him after Paris though his 10 to 4 regimen was not to her liking. The Kerala couple decided not to renew the contract with Powell for 2004.

To give the entire credit to Powell for her Paris bronze (6.70m) would be to forget the fact that she jumped 6.74m twice before that at home and had the National mark of 6.83 in Athens and now 6.75m in Monaco, all under Bobby's charge.

"People including former athletes are ready to pass critical comments without knowing what goes on into Anju's training or why she changes into a diagonal stride as she approaches the board," says Bobby.

Bobby is not against foreign expertise. Someone like Randy Huntington, Powell's coach, who did provide a few tips last year when they were in the US, could be of help. Or someone for a specific task, say to improve Anju's speed. Powell, among others, agrees that she has one of the best jumping techniques in the world.

Foreign coaches of course do not come cheap. Why, Anju would have loved to have a masseur, a doctor and a psychologist in her team through this season and earlier. But they can't afford such a team; they have to fend for themselves.

At Incheon, during the Asian Championships, where Anju won the gold with a jump of 6.65 metres, she had a hamstring strain. "I won't be able to get there, but a professional masseur will," said Bobby. There were two masseurs with the Indian team, both male.

In 2003, the Union Sports Ministry chipped in substantially with funds to help Anju compete and train abroad. Next year, Sobha Developers, the real estate and construction firm from Bangalore, came forward with a handsome sponsorship deal.

"We were expecting the association with Sobha Developers to continue till the Beijing Olympics," said Bobby. But that has not happened.

Anju has managed a modest sponsorship from Cochin Refineries this year and a bigger deal with Nike, the sports shoes and apparel giant, but unlike what many would like to believe the bonuses (apart from equipment support) for winning major international medals are not so mouthwatering. Say, 3,000 dollars for the silver at Monaco. Of course she had 20,000 dollars prize money from the IAAF for her silver, equivalent to the prize she received for the bronze in Paris in 2003.

But does she consider Monaco on par with World championships and Olympics?

"In terms of competition this was the toughest I had. This medal should be put alongside the bronze (from Paris). Just to get into the World Athletics Final was considered an achievement. And now you have a medal. It really feels good to have a medal from a competition that had the best in the world," said Anju.

She had jumped a season best 6.75m, her only valid jump in four attempts, to beat the Olympic champion (Tatyana Lebedeva), Olympic silver medallist (Irina Simagina) and a former World champion (Eunice Barber.)

Athens Olympics probably was tougher in terms of the star-cast, the three Russians (Kotova, Lebedeva and Simagina) at their peak, Marion Jones, Grace Upshaw, Bronwyn Thompson and Carolina Kluft.

What lies ahead? Will she be able to keep up her motivation by the time the Beijing Games come around in 2008? The age factor will also matter.

"We have a medal from the World Championships, the World Athletics Final, Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and Asian Championships. Next year we will aim for one in the World Indoor championships," says Bobby. Beijing has to be in focus all the while of course.

With the Sania Mirza fever gripping the country, Anju's achievement in Monte Carlo, by and large, received lukewarm response from the media and the authorities. A headless Sports Ministry could not have been expected to respond to her feat. The previous Government, while acknowledging the feats of all the medal winners with a hiked incentive for the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games in 2002, actually paid lesser for her World Championships bronze (Rs. 6 lakhs) compared to her Commonwealth Games bronze (Rs. 10 lakhs).

Anju and Bobby can take such ignorance in their stride. But not when someone asks, "when do you think you will jump seven metres?"

Quite often he replies, "it will come" and then wonders, "but then no one asks that of our cricket team when it wins by a small margin."

There is also the veiled suggestion occasionally about how doping plays a large part in international athletics. On her part, Anju is a promoter of WADA's `clean sport' campaign.

Factfile Anju B. George.

Born: April 19, 1977, Cheeranchira, Changanassery, Kottayam, Kerala.

Educational qualification: Bachelors degree in economics.

Employed with: Customs, Chennai as Preventive Officer.

Personal bests and National records: Long jump 6.83 (Athens, 27-08-04); Triple jump: 13.67m (Hyderabad, 18-12-02).

Major achievements: In long jump: Silver medal at SAF Games, Kathmandu, 1999 (6.22m), gold in Sri Lankan Open meet, Colombo, 1999 (6.32m), gold in International circuit meet at Bhopal, 2000 (6.59m NR), bronze in international meet, Balaton, Hungary, 2001 (6.27m), Asian GP 2002: silver at Hyderabad (6.58m), silver at Bangkok (6.53m), silver at Manila (6.45m); bronze at Commonwealth Games, Manchester, 2002 (6.49m), gold at Asian Games, Busan, Korea, 2002 (6.53m), silver at Super Grand Prix, Stockholm 2003 (6.49m), bronze at World championships, Paris, 2003 (6.70m); gold at Super Grand Prix, Doha 2004 (6.83w), bronze at Grand Prix, Eugene 2004 (6.82w), silver at Super Grand Prix, Madrid 2004 (6.62); sixth place at Olympics, Athens 2004 (6.83m, NR); fourth place at World Athletics Final, Monaco (6.61m); gold at Yokohama international 2004 (6.61m); gold at Asian All-Stars, Singapore 2004 (6.66m); fifth place at World championships, Helsinki 2005 (6.66m); gold at Asian championships, Incheon, 2005 (6.65m); silver at World Athletics Final, Monaco 2005 (6.75m).

Progression: Long jump: 1997-6.20m, 1998-6.12m, 1999-6.37m, 2000-6.59m, 2001-6.74m, 2002-6.74m, 2003-6.70m, 2004-6.83m, 2005-6.75m.

Triple jump: 1997-13.13m, 1998-13.06m, 1999-13.27m, 2000-no mark, 2001-13.61m, 2002-13.67m.