Permission to reproduce these articles has to be obtained from the Malayala Manorama, Kochi
Anju Bobby George, coached by her husband, aims for Olympic glory at Athens
By Shevlin Sebastian/Bangalore
It is raining on a Monday evening in early May in Bangalore. The leaves on the trees that dot the Bangalore University campus, where the Sports Authority of India, South Centre is located, are a shimmering green. But Anju Bobby George is not thinking about nature’s beauty. She is disappointed that the practice jumps that she had scheduled on the synthetic track will now have to be cancelled. And next day, she is flying to Osaka to take part in a Grand Prix event. "No matter," says her husband and coach Bobby George. "We will train indoors."
So they move to the gymnasium hall and it is crowded with athletes, weightlifters, volleyball and basketball players. Anju takes rectangular mats and places it diagonally across the floor. As she is about to place one mat, she spots a nail sticking out from the wooden floor. "Look at this," she exclaims.
Bobby purses his lips together and says, "This is supposed to be the best gymnasium in the country. We have been asking for a top class gymnasium for years and [Union] Sports Minister Vikram Verma keeps promising that he will do something but nothing has happened so far."
He looks at me and asks, "So what do you think? Is this ‘India Shining?’"
The equipment is rudimentary and there are patches of rust on the barbells. The asbestos roof is a pale white, a clock on the wall is two hours behind, the paint is peeling off the walls and there are no proper vents.
Anju runs from one end of the room, leaps up, simulating a jump, lands on the mats and ends her run rushing into her husband’s arms. "Your knees are not going up properly," he says. Tucking a yellow T-shirt into her blue tracksuit, she nods, goes back to the top of her run and does another one.
In between runs, Bobby—who catches a glimpse of the newspaper in my hand, which has front-paged Dhanraj Pillay’s omission from the Indian team—goes ballistic: "These federation officials are so arrogant. Pillay can win the game single-handedly for India. He has such a big heart. You know, he should be made player-coach and I am telling you, he will inspire the others to win a medal."
As Anju comes up, she hears what Bobby says and adds, "Really, it is a shame."
ON HER INITIAL YEARS
"I was born in Cheeranchira in Changanassery in Kerala," Anju says. "It was my father, K.T. Markose, who initiated me into athletics."
Markose tells me on the phone that when Anju was in nursery class, he was excited by the coverage that P.T. Usha and Shiny Wilson were getting for their athletic exploits. "So I wanted her to become an athlete," he says.
In the beginning, Anju was not interested. "But gradually, I came to enjoy the thrill of competition," she says. She took part in her first competition in class one and in class three, she jumped three metres and won her maiden prize of a cup and saucer. By the time she was in class 10, she was doing the heptathlon. "But it wasn’t worth it, doing so many events and getting one medal in return," she said later, in an interview. In 1996, when she shifted to the long jump, she won the gold medal in the junior Asian championships held in New Delhi. It was also the year that she met Bobby George, a former national triple jump champion, at a training camp in Bangalore.
"When I met Bobby for the first time, it was not love at first or second sight," she says. In 1998, after the Asian Games trials at Bangalore, the Kerala state coach T.P. Ouseph was disappointed that Lekha Thomas (long jump and triple jump), Bobby Aloysius (high jump) and Anju were not selected. So he left. Lekha got married and Bobby Aloysius went abroad for training. "I was all alone," Anju says. "I noticed that Bobby [George] was training all by himself. So I approached him and asked him whether he could coach me and he agreed. I knew him before but we got close after we started training together. Then it became another story." They were engaged in 1999 and got married in 2000.
Bobby’s father, George Joseph, 72—whose elder son Jimmy was one of the legends in Indian volleyball before he died in a car accident in Italy—says, "Anju could not have done it without Bobby. Even though he has no formal qualification as a coach, because of his mechanical engineering degree, he tried out a lot of ideas and it worked with Anju."
She agrees easily: "Without Bobby I would have been stuck at the national level." Bobby refused to let her give up when she felt dejected after missing the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games and the World Championships in Edmonton because of injury. The prodding and the encouragement helped: in 2001, she set the national record by jumping 6.74m at a meet in Thiruvananthapuram.
In another session in the weightlifting gym, Anju places her stomach over a gymnastic vault, and her feet between two bars of a rack next to a wall. Then Bobby places a large round disk on her upper shoulders, and Anju lifts her body backwards, using her legs as leverage. She does 20 push-ups effortlessly. After she gets off the vault and moves away, I pick up the disk and can feel my shoulders almost being wrenched off. It weighs 20kg. Anju turns around, smiles and says, "Be careful, you might hurt your back."
Then she moves next to a wall, picks up a 5-kg ball, throws it against the wall and bounces it back with her upper thighs. She does this a few times. I stay away and look at the ball as if it is covered with algae.
There is a break in the training and the loquacious Bobby steps out. Anju sits on a stool, beads of perspiration sliding down her face.
I tell her about an article in The New York Times, which stated that it is impossible for any athlete to reach world class level without the help of drugs. Since everybody is taking them, the only way you can stay in competition is to take it yourself.
She hears me out silently and then, with an unflinching gaze, she says, "I don’t take drugs. I never have. I am afraid to damage my body. I want to win on my natural talent. If you go on the right path, God will reward you, At least, that is what I have learnt from life."
"What about Marion Jones?" I ask. "She is now under a cloud of suspicion."
Anju nods and says, "Check out the pictures of Marion a year ago and now and you will see a remarkable change. Earlier, she had huge muscles and was really bulky. Now she is slim and almost unrecognisable."
Then she tells me an anecdote. After she won the bronze medal at the World Athletics Championships in Paris last year, the first Indian to do so, Igor Ter-Ovanesyan—the Russian, who, along with Ralph Boston of the USA, held the long jump world record before it was broken by Bob Beamon’s immortal leap in 1968—came up to Anju and said, "I have to admire you. That you were able to win a medal from among those girls." Anju concludes, with a disarming smile, "I really don’t know what he was trying to say, but drugs are poison and I don’t take poison."
ON HER TRAINING SESSIONS
"Basically, there are ten sessions a week, mornings and evenings. Before competitions, the load is less but the intensity is high. I do 150m repetitive sprints. Sometimes, I have a five-hour session in the evening, from 4 to 9 p.m. We reach home by 9.30 p.m. Then Bobby gives me a massage and I have an ice bath. By the time I go to sleep it is 11.30 p.m. Being an athlete is a fulltime profession. I plan to take part in about 10 events before the Olympic Games."
ON HER STINT WITH WORLD LONG JUMP RECORD HOLDER MIKE POWELL
"I had a lot of doubts. Even though my husband is my coach, he has never competed at the international level. When I trained with Mike Powell and other world class athletes in California for six months, last year, I understood how they prepared for a major competition. I learned little things like how much training to do a day before and on the day of the competition. Powell said that I had no problem with my technique. He just felt that my running on the runway was unsteady in competition. There was a lack of rhythm because of a lack of concentration. I was getting distracted by the crowds, the noise and the pressure. We worked quite a bit on the mental aspect."
ON HER WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP BRONZE MEDAL
"For the world championships, my deepest desire was to stand on the victory podium. I wanted a medal but that proved to be my undoing. If I had visualised a gold medal I would have probably won it. I had a very good jump of 6.90m plus, but it was called a foul. I was just 4mm across the line. It is impossible to see 4mm with the naked eye. One judge raised a white flag while the other raised a red flag. Since this was my first time at a major championship, I did not know the process of appeal. Looking back, both Bobby and I feel that if I had appealed, I would have won. [The winner, Eunice Barber of France, did 6.99m.] This time, I am just focused on winning the Olympic gold medal. It is a single-minded goal. Bobby and I are thinking about this 24 hours a day. Otherwise, I will not get it."
After a morning’s training session, we stand near her silver-grey Optra Chevrolet. Bobby opens the luggage compartment. It is filled with rucksacks. "These are all for her training," Bobby says and opens one rucksack and pulls out a red weighted jacket. I put it on and go for a jog. When I return, I say, "Hey, this is easy, no problem at all."
"Really," Anju says and takes out the weighted tracksuit, "Why don’t you wear this and run?" And then I realise that this is not a joke. The tracksuit weighs a few kilos, and I suddenly get a picture of how tough her training is.
Bobby adds, "This costs $300 and we had to pay duty on it. And remember, she works as preventive officer in the Customs in Chennai."
Before I could ask anything, he says, "We could have gone through the sports ministry and got a duty exemption but with the paperwork and the slow manner in which the bureaucrats work, the Olympics would have been long over. It was not worth the trouble."
As they get into the car and I wave goodbye, I am thinking, ‘She is the lone medal hope for a billion people. Must be a heavy burden, all these expectations’.
But knowing her quiet confidence, she would probably give a succinct reply: Main Hoon Na.
Date of birth- April 19, 1977
Gold medal in the 2002
Asian Games in Busan
Bronze medal in the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester
Bronze medal in the 2003 World Athletics championships in Paris
Arjuna Award for the year 2002
Has signed up with Hudson Smith International, a top sports management firm which handles star athletes like Maurice Greene
Sobha Developers for 2004: Rs 30 lakh
2003: 4,800 euros for her silver medal at the D.N. Galan Meet in Stockholm, 5,000 euros at the Golden Gala in Rome, $20,000 for a third place in the World Athletics Championships in Paris and $5,000 for a fifth place in the World Athletics Finals in Monaco
Anjali Bhagwat aims for gold at Athens
By Shevlin Sebastian/Bangalore
"Sir, the overhead lights are not working," says Anjali Bhagwat, 35, at the Jagdale N. Radha-krishnan Shooting Complex in the Sports Authority of India centre in Bangalore. She is wearing a red and white uniform, made of canvas, with the word ANJALI in red going down one side of the coat.
"Let me try to fix it," says the portly armourer D.K. Shukla, in a blue shirt and cream trousers, as he beckons a man. The hall is hot although Anjali may get some relief from the sole Videocon cooler that is placed a few feet behind her. There are several shooters, men and women, standing beside her, practising assiduously. Now and then, the silence is punctuated by the flat sound of a bullet hitting a target.
Single-minded focus: Anjali during her training in Bangalore
Anjali lifts the rifle, stares through the lens for several moments and squeezes the trigger. Then she presses a button and the shooting card returns via a long thread. She places the rifle on the stand and stares at the floor, pondering her next shot. She is oblivious of the presence of a Doordarshan cameraman who is filming her every move, a freelance photographer who is clicking away on his digital camera, curious onlookers and the inevitable bunch of scribes. Clearly, she is the star in the hall.
And why not? Last year, in only her second appearance in the World Cup Finals in Milan, Italy—one has to perform well in the four World Cups during the season to be selected for the finals—Anjali outperformed defending champion Lioubov Galkina of Russia, world record holder Li Du of China, twice World Cup Finals champion Sonja Pfeilschifter of Germany and world champion Katerina Kurkova of the Czech Republic.
In 2002, she won four gold medals in the Commonwealth Games at Manchester and the team silver in the Busan Asian Games. For a while, in 2001, she was ranked number one in the world in the air rifle event. She received a last-minute wild card in the 2000 Sydney Olympics and became the first Indian shooter to reach the Olympic finals in the first attempt.
In Bangalore, Anjali agrees to speak to me only after the morning’s training is over. We sit on a stone bench under a tall tree, with its canopy of green leaves, just outside the shooting hall. She has now unpinned her hair and, unlike some of our sportswomen, looks very feminine. When I switch on my dictaphone, she asks whether the droning of insects will affect the taping. I say no and she smiles easily. She has a singsong voice and as she speaks for a few minutes I realise how much she loves the sport.
"I am addicted to shooting," says the Arjuna awardee of 2000. "Every day in practice I learn something new. You have to be conscious of your breathing. Your hand should be still. You have to be very aware of your muscles. If you move one muscle, the whole body moves, so you have to be aware which muscle is creating the problem. We also have to shoot on the off-beat. That is between pulse beats. We have to catch that moment."
"I am not even aware of either my pulse or heartbeat," I say.
She smiles and says, "That is why I am shooting 10 out of 10."
She is right. Earlier, I had inspected her shooting cards, which were placed on a chair behind her. I picked up the first 30 and saw that she had hit the bull’s-eye in every one of them. The surprising thing was that she was not aiming at a big, round bull’s-eye. She actually has to aim at a dot within a circle from a distance of 10m and she gets it spot on all the time.
Dronacharya awardee, Sunny Thomas, a retired professor of English, who has been the national coach for the past 11 years, says, "One of Anjali’s strongest attributes is her sense of calmness and a high degree of consistency. She is a naturally talented shooter, but she backs it up with hard work."
When she is at home in Mumbai, she catches a bus from Andheri and travels for an hour to reach the shooting range of the Maharashtra Rifle Association at Worli Sea Face. She trains from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m, with an hour’s break for lunch. From 5 p.m. to 6 p.m., she does physical training which includes yoga, free-hand exercises and jogging on one day and mental training the next. She has been in single-minded focus to fulfil her ambition of winning an Olympic gold.
"I will be taking part in two events in Athens," she says. "The 10m air rifle event and the 50m event. The air rifle is my master event and I am already in the top five. But last year I thought that I would master the 50m event. In the World Cup in Sydney earlier this year I won the bronze in the 50m." However, in the World Cup in Milan in mid-June, she came 12th.
The problem, she says, with the 50m event is that the necessary equipment and ammunition have to be imported from Russia or Germany, and for which, you need a special import licence. "It takes such a long time to get things done in India," Anjali says. "My husband, Mandar, is trying his best to get all the facilities. Just two months ago, he went to Frankfurt to get a new barrel for my rifle and new ammunition."
Frequently, during the conversation, she refers to her husband, so I had to ask the inevitable: "When and where did you fall in love with Mandar?"
"We had an arranged marriage a couple of years ago and he does not mind that I stay away for months at a training camp," she says. "After marriage, I started performing better because of the backing of my in-laws and my husband. In fact, Mandar, who has a manufacturing business, looks after my administrative work and accompanies me to all my tournaments at his expense. And when I participate in an event, because of him, I don’t have to think of anything else, except shooting."
"He is giving all of us husbands an inferiority complex," I say.
She bursts out laughing—eyes tightly shut, mouth wide open.
One of Anjali’s strongest attributes is her sense of calmness and a high degree of consistency, says coach Sunny Thomas
When she recovers, she continues with her husband-praising: "It was Mandar who said it was important that we should get publicity. Initially, I was shy and felt that I was shooting for my own self-satisfaction. He made me understand how important it was to have media coverage because sponsors will be happy."
"Do you have any sponsors?"
"For the Olympics, the Hinduja Foundation has paid for the equipment that I have imported. For example: my new barrel costs Rs 1.8 lakh. Ammunition is also expensive. Each bullet costs Rs 10 and I use around 200 bullets for practice. So my daily expense is about Rs 2,000. But for this, I have got a sponsorship from Hyundai. So I am spending a lot of money."
Like most Indian sportswomen, Anjali stumbled upon the sport accidentally. When she was in college, she was a member of the National Cadet Corps (NCC). "The turning point came in 1988 when there was an inter-collegiate shooting event for the NCC," she says. "I used to go for practice at the Maharashtra Rifle Association Hall and I saw shooters for the first time. I was fascinated by their equipment and the gear; I realised that this was something very different and I should try it."
In the national championships that year, she participated for a lark and won the silver in the rifle prone event. In 1990, under the coaching of veteran shooter Sanjay Chakravarthy, she won her first national title and ever since then, she has just got better and better.
As I watched her and the other shooters, during the morning session, I was struck by the strange uniform that they wore. So I asked H. Salim, 27, of the Border Security Force, whether I could try his jacket and he readily agreed. When I managed to put it on, it was like wearing a straitjacket or being encased in plaster. "This gear gives support to the back," said Salim. "The rifle weighs 5.5 kg and we have to hold it for nearly two hours. So, there is great pressure on the spine. This uniform—which is imported and costs Rs 35,000—is made of double canvas and we wear a linen cloth and sweatshirt underneath."
Uniforms can be imported easily, but Anjali has been waiting for a Rs 12 lakh electronic testing system (where shooting cards are changed electronically), for a long time but nothing has happened.
"And remember, I got my Olympic quota selection in 2002," says the Reliance Infocomm employee. "We had two years in hand. At the Olympic Games, only the ETS will be used. So I have a drawback when I practise with manual cards."
It is nearing lunchtime. Traces of impatience flicker across her face. The other shooters have left and the area is deserted. I quickly wrap up the interview.
"How long do you plan to go on?"
"There is no reti-rement age in shooting. If you are mentally strong, you can shoot for years. In fact, there is a shooter from Slovakia, he is in his 70s and he is still in the national team."
In a teasing tone, I ask, "So, will we see a silver-haired Anjali Bhagwat in a 2040 Olympic Games?"
But this woman is so serious about her shooting, she mis-ses my flippancy completely and replies with a serious face, "After a few years, I will slow down and, maybe, con-centrate on one event." Go for it, Anjali!
Saying yes to doping
More and more athletes are taking drugs to win medals
By Shevlin Sebastian/Hyderabad
"Let me tell you a story," said athlete Anindita Sinha (real name not disclosed), in the reading room in the National Games village in Hyderabad. The subject under discussion: doping in Indian sports. Ever since middle-distance runner Sunita Rani tested positive for the drug nandrolone at the Busan Asian Games, there has been a cloud of suspicion over every Indian athlete. Sinha's story lifts the lid on doping.
"Before the Indian team left for the Asian Track and Field Meet in Jakarta in 2000, eight athletes tested positive," said Sinha. "If they were held back, the Amateur Athletic Federation of India (AAFI) would have had to inform the press about it and there would have been a scandal. Instead, they were allowed to go ahead, but with instructions to perform badly. Most of them did not advance very far. There was a shot-putter who did a foul throw three times in a row. He was able to disqualify himself that way."
Most athletes live in fear that the federation can expose them any time; they might even lose their jobs, said Sinha. So they toe the line and will not speak out against the federation which is allowing the use of drugs. "They are locked in a tight embrace of wrongdoing," she said.
Referring to the Sunita Rani case, Sinha said: "It is impossible for the foreign doctors (looking after Rani) to have made a mistake. They command huge salaries so they have a responsibility to provide the correct drugs and have them flushed out of the system 30 days before the competition so that there is no chance of being caught. I have a feeling that Sunita and her coach tried something but this is only guesswork. The issue afforded an ideal opportunity for the federation to clean the system of the rot but instead, they defended Rani based on a technicality. Maybe it maintained the country's image abroad."
The pressure to win medals rests not only on the players but also on the authorities. "Because every time India participates abroad and does badly, the press raises a hue and cry over the money wasted on sport," said Sinha. "Dope-taking is rampant abroad. If you want medals, you have to take dope. But then that opens the possibility of getting caught. If the federation produces medal-winning athletes, they get more money from the government. The medallists will get prize money and job promotions, so there is a lot of pressure to take drugs. Basically, it all boils down to money."
But Sinha is clear on one score. "By the time an athlete comes to the national camps, she is about 20 years old and mature enough to say yes or no to drugs. The moral choice is hers. But just by taking drugs you cannot become a champion. You have to work for several years before you can make a mark. Drugs definitely help you enhance your performance."
"There is a serious problem with weightlifters. We are trying to solve
the problem about drugs," says Suresh Kalmadi, AAFI president.
"Do you know why the Sports Authority of India is not accrediting its world-class dope testing laboratory in New Delhi with the International Olympic Committee (IOC)? Because it will have to inform the IOC about positive dope tests and the matter will become public. Instead, SAI says that it needs to improve its quality systems so that it can get accredited. It's all bullshit. A massive cover-up is going on."
Sinha is aware that regular drug use can bring about physical changes in the body. "Women's voices become masculine, they develop black moles and red eyes. The throwers and weightlifters (the group taking drugs in India according to Sinha) become extremely aggressive and violence-prone as the competition nears. Prolonged use causes side-effects like delayed periods and difficulty in conceiving. I know of a famous weightlifter whose child is perpetually suffering from some illness or the other," she said. "The price of a medal is really high and there are quite a few sportswomen who are willing to pay the price. But the ones who really suffer are the honest athletes. They stand no chance against those who take drugs and it saps their motivation."
Across town, in the lobby of the Taj Krishna, AAFI president Suresh Kalmadi commented on the issue. "Look, dope is a serious problem all over the world," he said. "In India it has been magnified out of proportion. We did so well at the Commonwealth Games and the Busan Asian Games. Why don't you concentrate on that? We have big talents like Anju Bobby George, Beenamol, Bobby Aloysius and Neelam Singh. Okay, okay, there is a serious problem with weightlifters. I have to admit that. We are trying to solve the problem about drugs."
On the other hand, Kulwant Singh, coach of the Bihar team, said: "Dope-taking is widespread in Indian sport. You have to take it if you want to compete on the international level, where they all take dope. There is nothing wrong in it. If you want to bring glory to the country, you have to take it. But you must ensure that you don't get caught."
Shajan Skaria, husband of Busan Games high jump silver medallist Bobby Aloysius, revealed more. "Doping in India is an Ôofficially' sponsored programme. They target a few athletes from the national camps who are given medicines and injections for four years. They are used as guinea-pigs. All they want is medals. They don't care about the future of these athletes. When the next Asian Games or Olympics comes up, another group is selected and pumped with dope."
But who influences athletes to take drugs? Usha Nair, SAI cycling coach, said it was the "seniors encouraging the juniors to take it. Youngsters nowadays want to win at all cost and they are willing to cut corners for that."
There are, however, stray voices that maintain there is no doping in Indian sport. "All sorts of allegations about drug-taking has been hurled but nothing has been proved," said Randhir Singh, secretary-general of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA). "These allegations are baseless," said P. Narasimhalu, coach of the Goa swimming team. "Athletes take ordinary tablets like Actifed, which contains some banned substances. So you get caught because of it. I have been a coach for several years and I have not come across anybody taking drugs." Manoj Lal, a member of the silver-medal winning 4x400m quartet in Busan Asian Games, said, "I take only vitamin supplements. You don't need drugs to do well. You need will-power."
Lalit Bhanot, secretary of AAFI, denied allegations that the federation had overlooked positive drug tests. "We are the first to initiate drug tests and we have suspended athletes who have got caught," he said. "People are funny. When we don't win, they ask why aren't we winning. And when we win, they say it is because of dope. We won almost 50 per cent of the athletics medals in the Busan Asian Games. And all the athletes, except Sunita, passed the dope tests."
So how can the situation be tackled? Skaria offered the perfect antidote. "We should develop potent drugs using Ayurveda. Because then it will not come up on any banned list and we can win for at least 10 years before the IOC figures out what drug we are using."
On the other hand, Dr Swarup Mukherjee, state coordinator of the IOA's Doping Commission for the National Games, sounded the right note. "We have to sensitise sportsmen about the harmful effects of drugs," he said. "If you take drugs over a period of time, you will suffer from impotency, sterility, heart failure, malfunctioning of the liver, and certain cancers of the body. A woman who takes drugs regularly is unlikely to bear a normal child. If you tell them not to take drugs because of moral reasons, they might not listen. But if you tell them that you might get cancer, they will."
The players have a champion in Pullella Gopichand, former All England badminton champion. "We should have a coach who is responsible for the sportsperson," he said. "Instead, we have a system where there is one coach at the state level, one at the national level and one who takes them for international events. So nobody can be held accountable and the sportsperson has to take the blame if he or she fails a dope test."
Manisha Arya, gold medallist in the junior Asian wrestling championships in New Delhi in 2000, is brutally forthright. "Every athlete abroad has a doctor to look after his drug needs," she said. "We need doctors to tell us how to use drugs and when to leave it, so that we are not caught. Practice and hard work are not enough. Those who are caught are labelled chors (thieves), those who are not are heroes. That's the risk you have to take. Take it or leave it."
The march of time
By Shevlin Sebastian
PAYYOLI: March 1991: I travelled all the way from Kolkata, where I used to live, for my meeting with P.T. Usha at her home. She had retired and was weeks away from marrying V. Sreenivasan, a former university-level kabaddi player. She was courteous, down-to-earth and friendly.
She lived in ‘Ushass’—the house she built with the help of a Rs 2 lakh grant from the Kerala government—with her parents, E.P.M. Paithal and Lakshmi, sisters Suma and Shobha and brother Pradeep. It was a lively household.
But it was clear that she was suffering because her career had ended. "When I was an athlete there was this ever-present feeling of tension and anticipation," she said. "Now it is no longer there. Nowadays when I get up I lie in bed and feel depressed." (Of course, she would make a comeback in 1994 and retire again in 2000.)
But that day, despite her bleak mood, her courteousness was unfailing. After lunch she took me in her new Standard 2000 car, which was gifted by the state government, to show me the beach where she had spent several years training on the sands...
July 2004: The house is still the same but it is now painted bright red. I had come to do a story. Sreenivasan opens the door and welcomes me. Inside, the living room has been remodelled, there is plenty of open space, gleaming floor tiles and classy woodwork. But the famous wall-length glass case with the hundreds of medals that Usha won is still there.
When Usha, 40, walks in from the bedroom, in a brown salwar kameez, straight-backed, steady gaze and a welcoming smile, I realise instantly that she is still the same, friendly, down-to-earth person I had known. Unlike most people, being a celebrity had not damaged her character.
But the passage of time has inflicted wounds and change. Her beloved father died in 1998 of old age ailments. Both her sisters have married and moved away. Her brother, Pradeep, lives in Kannur with his now-pregnant wife. So Usha now lives with her mother and husband and 12-year-old son, Ujjwal.
Ujjwal, who sprints down the stairs from the first floor in the way only kids can, is already five feet tall. The proud father, who is a full-time treasurer of the Usha School of Athletics in nearby Koyilandy, says, "He has sprinting ability. I feel that he could reach a height of 6’4", which is good for sprinting. But that depends on whether he wants to be an athlete."
We move out to take some pictures and I notice that the well, with its crystal-clear water, has several tiny fish. "Ujjwal bought a few fish but now they have multiplied," explains Sreenivasan.
"What do you expect?" I say. "After all, they are Indian fish."
Sreenivasan has a giggling fit.
A poignant moment comes when I ask Usha about her career and she feels such a sense of loss. "I had so much of talent but I lacked the right exposure at the right time. If I had participated in meets abroad regularly, I could have performed so much better." Her voice trails off and she gives a sad smile.
But when you see how small the town of Payolli is, the complete absence of facilities, when you remember the financial struggles of the family during her childhood, you cannot help but have a sense of admiration.
The French connection
By Shevlin Sebastian
CHENNAI: What is a French couple doing at the 44th Inter-state National Athletics Cham-pionships? Photographer Gilles Bertrand gives me the answer: "My wife, Odile Baudrier, and I own a track and field magazine in France called VO2. We became interested in Indian athletics after seeing Anju Bobby George win the long jump bronze medal in the World Athletics Championships in Paris last year."
And so there is Gilles, 49, a slim, bespectacled man, running all over the place, snapping pictures furiously. Odile, 48, prefers to stay in the stands, but when high jumper Bobby Aloysius manages to get selected for the Olympics on her very last jump, she is at the trackside, asking me questions. She does not know that Bobby—who is conversing in Malayalam with a scribe—speaks English.
Gilles has covered three Olympic Games since 1992, every World Athletics Championships since 1991 and several Grand Prix events, and has visited more than 60 countries. "I like to do stories on how society influences sports and vice versa," he says. When I ask him about the standard at this meet, the tall man bends and places his palm a little above his knees and says politely, "The standard is a little low, but the organisation of the event is excellent."
It has been a busy year for Gilles. He has been to Morocco to do a story on Nawal el Moutawakel, the first Moroccan, African and Muslim woman to win an Olympic gold medal in the 400m hurdles in the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Then he went to Ethiopia to do a story on the country’s powerful athletics team, then on to Greece to witness the national athletics cham-pionships and to see the main Olympic stadium, and now here he is, in India.
What is depressing to hear are his views on doping. "Around 90 per cent of the winners on the international circuit are on dope," he says. I suggest that, maybe, the figure is too high and he gives a wry smile and says, "This is the reality although few are caught."
I rattle off the names of Carl Lewis, Merlene Ottey, Gail Devers, Marion Jones and even the great Haile Gebreselassie of Ethiopia. "All on dope, monsieur, but I have no proof," he says. "But you know who is on dope and who is not. Gebreselassie’s time of 26:22.75 in the 10,000m is inhuman. Most probably, it is blood doping. But he is a good man and very rich. His house in Addis Ababa is like a castle." Incidentally, in June, Gebreselassie’s compatriot Kenenisa Bekele, set a new world record in the 10,000m at 26.20.31.
Gilles tells his anecdotes in halting English and bursts out laughing when I try out the only French sentence I know: "Je t’aime, ma cherie (I love you, my darling)."