December 2021 was a momentous time for India for both athletics and women empowerment. Not surprisingly the reason for both of them was one, the great athlete Anju Bobby George, as she received the ‘Woman of the Year’ award from World Athletics for her contribution towards gender equality. Anju is not new to success. In addition to the 2020 BBC Lifetime Achievement Award, she has received the Padma Shri, the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award (now known as Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna Award) and also the Arjuna Award. The foundation of this recognition is her passion for long jump, an athletic sport, in which she has proved her mettle innumerable times. She won a bronze at the World Championship of Athletics in 2003, making her the only Indian athlete to have won a medal at the World Championship of athletics. She won gold at the 2005 World Athletics, the 2002 Asian Games and the 2005 Asian Championships. Anju continues to hold the Indian national record for long jump (at 2004 Athens Olympics).
Obviously, adorning one’s hat with so many successful feathers comes with its share of challenges. However, it was tougher for Anju. In 2020, long after her retirement in 2012, she revealed that she has a rare condition called Renal Agenesis, or just one functional kidney. This condition, although does not have any impact in the lives of ordinary humans, does negatively affect sportspersons due to extreme exercise requirement. Anju Bobby George also has a dead takeoff leg from an accident she had at the age of 17. It does not help that she is allergic to painkillers that could have soothed the pain. After gaining perspective in life, Anju began speaking her mind about her problems to motivate young sportspersons to try and rise above their problems.
Even after her retirement, Anju is active in the realm of athletics. She is the Senior Vice President of Athletics Federation of India, the senior-most position occupied by any woman in the history of the organisation. Then in 2016, she started the Anju Bobby Sports Foundation in Karnataka along with her husband and former coach Bobby George. The elephant in the room has always been that women are at a more disadvantageous position than men, more so in sports. Anju herself was a witness to her colleagues and friends dropping out of sports because of parental or societal pressures and she has wanted to challenge this. She focusses on spreading awareness regarding sports as a career- especially among girls and that too from the disadvantaged sections of society. In Anju’s own words, “We are there to support the girls, so they don’t have to face the same challenges that athletes during my time did”, including the financial constraints that Anju frequently faced. It’s no surprise then that the silver medal in World under 20 Championships 2021 went to one of Anju’s students: 17 year old Shaili Singh, who is the daughter of a single mother who learnt tailoring to make ends meet.
Anju’s vision to empower women through sports is a very important yet grossly under-recognised one. According to Indian Institute of Legal Studies, “Research and studies have always suggested that participation in sport can be energizing and personally empowering experience for women. Being connected to sports a woman always feels physically and mentally stronger, more competent and more in control of her life as an independent individual. Sports participation also provides girls and women with opportunities to reconnect with the power of their own bodies.” Further, sports are still heavily male dominated and it’s an open secret that women athletes struggle more to gain viewership, publicity and sponsorship and other monetary benefits as compared to their male counterparts. Moreover, being highly androcentric, sports also make it easy to identify ingrained sexism of the society.
Even in the Executive Council of Athletics Federation of India, out of the 24 office bearers, only 4 are women (including Anju Bobby George). Anju also laments this fact: “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.”
Ultimately, Anju’s success should have been celebrated in a much more pompous manner due to the symbolism it projects, and December 2021 should not have passed as quietly as it did. However, Anju’s successes speak more than loudly for her. Here’s wishing the one and only Anju Bobby George an even more successful, peaceful and happy career and life ahead on her 44th birthday.
Featured image source: BBC.com