Almost every Olympic medal won by an Indian is a story of overcoming odds. There was a time when just participation at the Games itself was the reward and medal an unachievable dream. Indeed, Olympic sports was not even an actual, full-time career option, but was forced to be a side hustle for so many athletes not in the traditionally lucrative or structured sports.
Now add one more odds to this pile. Being a woman in Indian sport in the 1990s.
For Karnam Malleswari, the odds were already higher, heavier than most even before she made it to the 2000 Sydney Games. But the tenacious 25-year-old lifted them clean above her head, becoming the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal. On September 19, 2000, she won the bronze medal in women’s 69kg weightlifting – India’s only medal in Sydney and just the third individual Olympic medal.
Her weightlifting medal is one of the most uplifting stories in Indian Olympic history, for the record and the many intangible things weighing her down. Here is a list of the most glaring obstacles – weights, if one must, – Malleswari had to lift away even before her final competition in Sydney.
The Andhra Pradesh athlete was the first Indian woman weightlifter to win gold at the World Championships. In the 1990s, she had won medals in four consecutive world championships, which included gold medals in 1994 and 1995 as well as two Asian Games medals. But the International Olympic Committee only included women’s weightlifting as an Olympic sport for the 2000 Games. The general assumption was that she was past her best years by the time the Olympics came around.
Then, she had to change her weight category to participate in the Games. She had competed in the 54kg where she won her world championship medals but had to make a big jump to 69kg for the Olympics.
She was deemed unfit before the Olympics, there were less-than-favourable comments about her physique and eating habits in some sections of the media. Not a conventional public sports figure, there was a generally strained relationship between the athlete and the media, despite being a world champion in her sport.
On the day of the medal, according to an India Today report by Rohit Brijnath, only four out of 42 Indian journalists in Sydney had turned up to see her compete.
But none of this mattered on the day. The only weight that mattered that day was 2.5 kg, the difference between a bronze and gold medal.
That day in the arena, Weining Lin of China, Erzsebet Markus of Hungary and Karnam Malleswari were the three clear frontrunners for the three medals in the 69kg. In snatch, the Indian lifted 105kg in her first attempt, 107.5kg in her second and 110kg in her third. She was in tune for a podium finish.
But here they finished on the podium would be determined by their clean and jerk performance. The medals are given based on total combined weight. It would come down to a math calculation and a bit of a gamble.
Spoiler alert: The gamble didn’t work for gold.
Here’s how ESPN described the events that ensued
Hungary’s Erzsebet Markus has set a world record in the Snatch, lifting 112.5 kg, two and a half more than her and China’s Lin Weining, who just happens to be the world record holder for total weight lifted. In the Clean & Jerk, Malleswari starts with a neat 125 kg. It’s matched by Markus and bettered, stunningly, by Weining as she lifts 132.5 kg. After the first round of Clean & Jerk, the totals stand at 242.5 kg for Weining, 237.5 for Markus and 235.0 for Malleswari.
Weining misses with a 137.5 kg attempt. Markus lifts 130 kg to level with Weining at 242.5 overall. Malleswari lifts 130 to make it 240.
Malleswari goes again. And she’s going big. 137.5. She and her coaches want to blow the competition out of the water. This lift would put her at 247.5, five and a half kilos clear at the top.— ESPN
The ambitious move didn’t work out for Malleswari as she was not able to lift 5kg more than she ever had in competition. She misses the attempt…. But so do Weining and Markus.
If only she had attempted a more achievable target, just 133kg, and she would have won the gold. Malleswari regrets the slip to this day and puts it down to a miscalculation by her coaches.
“It was my entire life’s effort...18-20 years of my life, building up to this, so there is obviously some sadness that I could not get a gold,” said the bronze medallist. “Bronze is great but gold is gold...I would have been compared with Abhinav Bindra,” she told Scroll.in in 2017.
But there was pride in her achievement as well, the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal. Malleswari broke the ceiling that Saina Nehwal, Mary Kom, Sakshi Malik and PV Sindhu have now climbed through.
“Now everyone expects medals from girls and compared to men, they are the ones who’ve been winning. There are hurdles and once you carve a path, the confidence automatically builds up in others. Once that happens, a girl is able to think that if someone can do it, then why not me? I feel proud to have created this pathway for our girls and to see them winning Olympic medals. Some even tell me today, ‘Ma’am you started it all’, so I feel delighted to have changed the perception,” Malleswari told Scroll.in in 2020.
If all goes well at Tokyo, a few more names will be added to India’s Olympic medallist roster. Perhaps even a second medal in weightlifting as Mirabai Chanu starts a favourite in 49kg. But the first will always be special, gold or not.
Watch her full Olympic performance here
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