Anju Bobby George is not forceful. She listens patiently, and replies thoughtfully. “I let my achievements do the talking,” says India’s only World Championship medalist over the phone. The soft-spoken long jump legend, however, has emerged as a powerful voice for empowerment of female athletes in the country over the past few years. World Athletics, the international athletics governing body, honoured her for being a ‘constant voice for gender equality’ this week by naming her the ‘Woman of the Year.’
“This recognition is not just for me as an athlete,” says the 44-year-old. “It is nice to be recognised by the world body for the work I am doing as a coach and mentor.” A fiercely competitive athlete, Anju overcame a dead takeoff leg and Renal Agenesis (rare condition where the person has a single kidney), to clinch to a bronze medal at the 2003 World Championships in Paris. It remains India’s only medal at the elite athletics event so far. The two-time Olympian has brought that same quiet determination to every role she has taken on after retiring in 2012.
In 2016, she started the Anju Bobby Sports Foundation in Karnataka along with her husband and former coach Bobby George. She is also the senior vice-president of the Athletics Federation of India, the highest post occupied by a woman in AFI history. “Sport is our passion. We cannot live without it,” she says, speaking for her husband as well. “We started this academy keeping in mind our duty of giving something back to society, our knowledge and hard-earned experience.
“In India now a lot of women athletes are coming through but most administrators are male. I think as women we can’t always open up about our problems (to men), but it is a little more relatable for female administrators. We need someone who is able to lend that support to female athletes.”
Anju believes she was fortunate that she was born in Kottayam, Kerala, a state that encouraged women to go after their dreams, be it academic or athletic. But during her career, she saw a lot of her peers drop out because of parental or societal pressures. She hopes to provide a better, more empowering environment for her wards. While her academy focuses on high-performance training, with coach Bobby at the helm, she does a lot of outreach programmes and mentors schoolchildren under the larger umbrella of her foundation. “We want to help the less fortunate ones, especially girl athletes,” she says. “When we work with them, it’s not just about the athlete coming into the limelight, it helps raise awareness around their entire community. We are there to support the girls, so they don’t have to face the same challenges that athletes during my time did.”
The academy has currently taken on 13 female jumpers and Anju and her husband not only look after their training, but also their education, housing and nutrition. The couple is also aware that their students are at a difficult and delicate age—13 to 18—and have to be handled with care. As a mentor, Anju, who is a mother of two, always tries to be there to talk to the students and guide them past the rough phases.
The results of this care are starting to show. Their star student Shaili Singh jumped to a personal best of 6.59 metres to win a silver medal in long jump at the 2021 U-20 World Championships in Nairobi, Kenya. Her breakthrough came within 20 days of Neeraj Chopra’s historic gold medal at the Tokyo 2020, when he became the first athlete from independent India to win an athletics medal at the Olympics. “When I won the medal, it was a lone (world) medal for 18 years,” says Anju. “Athletics is the toughest event to medal in on the world stage, because almost every country competes in it. Now this year alone we have won two big medals in athletics: gold for Neeraj and silver for Shaili. The world is looking at us.”
While Indian athletics has always had flagbearers like Milkha Singh, PT Usha and later Anju herself, the sport has really gained momentum this year. Television and social media has transported the magic of the simplest and most primal of Olympics discipline to the remotest corners of the country. Anju, who still holds the Indian national record for long jump (6.83m at 2004 Athens Olympics), believes the heightened awareness is bringing a lot more kids into sport. “Yes, there are still some regions in India where girls have to tackle parental and societal pressures,” she says. “But more and more parents now understand that sport is a career option now. A lot of current and former Indian sportswomen are coming back into the system. (MC) Mary Kom has her own academy, (badminton star) Jwala Gutta has also got into coaching. They see these strong role models and want the same for their daughters.”
The knock-on effect of this was seen at the Olympics over the last two editions as women accounted for five of India’s eight Olympic medals. Even as the gender barriers are slowly breaking down, aspiring Indian athletes now have more opportunities and access to better facilities. “When I was an athlete, everything was a struggle. It was difficult to find good coaches, good facilities. But things have become easier now, which is how it should be,” adds Anju. “We are happy to do our part. Me as a medalist and Bobby as a coach, as a team we are standing here for the next generation.” Having overcome many a hurdle herself as an athlete, Anju Bobby George is now helping young women take the leap of faith.
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.