There are many ways to start telling Mohammed Anas’ story, for it is littered with anecdotish snippets akin to his hometown Nilamel is with paddy fields. Perhaps it would be apt to start years before Anas was born, on a dusty ground in Kochi with its amateurishly drawn tracks. It was here, with the hot sun presiding over proceedings, that Anas’ father Yahiya crouched barefoot, his body trembling as he waited for the officials to yell ‘get, set and go!’.
Then Yahiya heard a gun shot. His entire body froze as he watched competitors around him take flight. Nobody had told the boy from an obscure village in Kollam that a gunshot was how you started a race.
Years later, there will be another gun shot, a couple of oceans away in Rio. And where the father froze, the son will have the chance to make amends on the grandest stage of them all.
The NSS College has the only sizeable ground in Nilamel, and that is where Ansar B takes his wards to practice whenever he gets to use it. The ground, he says, is private property, and whether he gets to use it depends on the benevolence of the college principal. Somebody new takes charge every months and Ansar often finds himself in their offices, appealing to their sporting sense. The ground is far from perfect — situated on top of a hillock, its unevenness will slow down anyone trying to lap it. “But the good thing is that if someone posts decent timings here, he will do really well when performing on a proper track,” Ansar says.
Ansar was one of the first men from Nilamel to take up athletics, and was a quarter-miler of some reckoning back in his day. He never had proper coaching, yet was fast enough to participate in a number of national-level meets. “Back then, nobody here knew what to do or how to approach athletics,” Ansar says. “Few schools showed any interest in sending kids to sports meets. There was nobody to guide kids the right way. That is something I look back upon with regret. Maybe if I had received the sort of guidance that Anas received, I would have done better too.”
Regret was what fuelled Ansar to start an academy for the kids of Nilamel when he hung his running shoes up. “I wanted to make sure no kids here lost out for lack of guidance,” says Ansar. That was in 2004. Two years later, a young Anas came to him, a short, but fast boy, still in sixth standard.
Ten years on, Anas is going to the Olympics — only the third Indian quarter-miler to do so after the legendary Milkha Singh and KM Binu — and Ansar couldn’t be prouder. But there is a tinge of anguish to his demeanour as he walks across the ground that Anas once practiced on. His wards still face the same disdain that Anas encountered before he hit the big leagues. Ansar’s morning was spent running to the panchayat office, trying to convince them to release the prize money that his students won months ago. Now he stands across the ground, facing the hills that overlook it, and points in the direction of a crudely dug hole in a forlorn corner. “That was supposed to be our high jump pit,” he says. “But we have no sand here, so we just dig a hole and fill it with the same soil. But then, a few days ago, a scrap dealer came to my house, saw the rusty high jump pole, mistook it for scrap and took it. Now we have to find a new high jump pole.”
Ansar then glances wearily, past a watchman who had turned up to enquire what he is doing inside the college premises, at a hoarding congratulating Anas. “In many ways, Anas is an Olympian without a home ground,” he says.
“It’s here,” Ansar says, as he points to a large, rather good-looking house with an ample backyard, packed with rubber trees. Then he hastily corrects himself. “This belongs to one of Anas’ relatives.” He then traverses a thin, rugged path by the side of the larger house, leading up to a more modest dwelling. A small house, with a couple of rooms, the paint dampened by the incessant rains that batter Kerala during the monsoons. On the doorstep, a middle-aged woman awaits with one of the most welcoming smiles anyone will ever see.
Sheena, Anas’ mother, lives in that house with his grandmother and her sister. Both her sons are away all the time, thanks to their sporting careers — Anas’ younger brother Anees is one of the country’s most promising long-jumpers, who came close to qualifying for the Olympics at the recently-held Indian Grand Prix in Bengaluru. To keep her company, Anas sends home a medal or two every now and then, which she keeps in a glass cupboard in the drawing hall for everyone to see. “Everything is here, right from the start.” she beams. Then she points to a miniature brass lamp, robbed of its lustre by time. “This was the first-ever prize he brought home.”
Behind every successful man, as the oft-abused, cliched saying goes, is a woman. In Anas’ case, that woman is his mother. Athletics is not exactly the most popular pastime in Nilamel, for it is only an hour’s drive from the state capital of Thiruvananthapuram, where educated government officials dazzled commoners with their sway and influence. Education was how you got out of your small village and made it big. Sports was but a needless distraction.
“I understood though,” says Sheena. “I knew it was in their blood. Even I was an athlete in school. Do you want to see my certificates?” She hurries in and emerges moments later with a greying folder. In it are dozens of certificates, printed on yellowish certificates with frayed-out edges, exuding the scent of an era long gone. “I used to go to meets when I was in school. But then, I had to stop when I got into college. In those days, women did not do these things.”
While other parents preferred to keep their children infront of books, Sheena used to let hers run free. “Every now and then, somebody would organise a race or two in connection with some festival or the other. I used to let the kids go there. They would bring back prizes too — utensils and household items mostly.”
But her biggest sacrifice came when her eldest son faced a choice — stay with his mother or leave home in search of a career in athletics that could turn out either way. When Anas was in tenth grade, his father Yahiya, who ran a shop in Saudi Arabia, died. The family, whose subsistence was whatever Yahiya sent home, suddenly faced uncertain times. A year later, Anas had the opportunity to leave home and join the Mar Basil School, renowned for their athletics programme, in Kothamangalam near Kochi. It was a difficult decision for him. His mother made it a lot easier for him. “I told him to leave. It was difficult, yes, but he had to go. Ansar sir came and told us that Anas would get the best coaching available in Kothamangalam. He had guided Anas till then, and we left this decision to him as well,” Sheena says.
Now, Sheena has a lot to smile about as she reaps the happy consequences of her sacrifice. “I used to see the Olympics on television when I was a kid,” she says. “I used to watch legends like PT Usha run at. Now, I can see my son.”
In 2012, Anas was preparing for a state school meet with his mates, when then-coach Sibi made a decision that changed his life. The latter, while reviewing his school’s preparation for the meet, noticed that they were a name short in the 400m event. His thoughts wandered to this long-jumper he had, who was displaying surprising pace in his run-up.
“I was always a long-jumper,” Anas says. “I used to participate in everything in school. But my main event was always the long jump. Then Sibi sir came and asked me if I could try out 400m, as they were a man short.”
Dutiful as he always was, Anas obeyed. At that state meet, he came a surprising third, ahead of many who had been training in that discipline for years. “I ran it in close to 49 seconds. After that, I stopped doing long jump and started focusing only on 400m,” Anas says.
His rise, from that point on, was rapid. A string of strong performances for his school and his college (Sree Krishna College) later, Anas made the Kerala 4x400m relay team for the 2015 National Games. There, he was picked up by the Navy, who promptly fielded him in the 2015 inter-services meet. He rewarded them with a silver. Then came another second place in the inter-university games in Hyderabad, two months later. A third second place awaited him in his first ever National Open Championships in Kolkata in September.
Eight months later, Anas stunned everyone at the Polish Athletics Championships, when he rewrote Arokia Rajiv’s national record in the heats. Anas was distraught though. He had missed the Olympic qualifying mark by four seconds. Then in the finals, Anas picked himself up and ran the race of his life. Panting, hands on his knees, he looked at his timings on the electronic board. It read 45.40s — the exact Olympic qualifying mark, not a second more, none less.
Ask any Indian athlete what their hopes for the Olympics are, and they will give you a knowing smile. Anas is no different. His answer is generic as well. “Try to qualify for the finals and hopefully do well from there.”
That is the tangible objective, but for Anas, there are a number of abstract factors at play — the memory of a man long gone and his tragicomically botched race, the vindication of a coach who gave his ward everything that he himself was denied, and the sacrifice of a woman who let her eldest son go, months after she had lost her husband. If Anas does manage to belie expectations, a number for people from Nilamel will have triumphed in Rio.