Editor’s note: This article was originally published on September 19, 2017.
The 2000 Olympics in Sydney was a dispiriting affair for Indian sport. But for a 25-year-old from a small village in Andhra Pradesh to lift the spirits of a nation with an historic feat.
On September 19 2000, Karnam Malleswari walked up to the weights at the Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre. She had won gold and silver medals at the World Championships. But no Indian woman had ever won an Olympic medal before. This was undoubtedly the biggest night of her life.
“It’s been 17 years but I can remember like it was yesterday,” Malleswari told The Field.
“The podium... the arena... I can see it in front of my eyes. That was a much simpler day and age... there was less publicity, less media, no Twitter. Then, participation was considered a big deal for Indian athletes, especially women, at the Olympics,” she added.
She lifted 110 kg in the snatch. In the clean & jerk, she started with 125 kg and then lifted 130 kg. This was, by itself, incredible, but she wanted more. A misguided calculation by the coach made her attempt to lift 137.5 kg in her last attempt...but she could not do it. No matter. Malleswari finished third and became the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal.
It was an historic moment. And it came from a quarter no one expected. In his report describing her achievement for India Today, Rohit Brijnath wrote about how no one gave much attention to Malleswari. Only four out of 42 Indian journalists had turned up to see her compete and till two hours before the competition, people thought she was a tourist.
“No one was there to cover my event,” remembered Malleswari with a grin. “It was only after I finished my clean & jerk and it was understood that India had won a medal that people trooped in.”
Of course, there is one regret she holds on to: missing the gold. Had she attempted going for 132.5 kg in her final attempt, she would have won the gold. But because of a “silly mistake” by her coach, she went for 137.5 kg and had to settle for bronze. It is a regret that continues to stay with her.
“It was my entire’s life 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 The Field.
But she is content at the revolution she started in Indian sport. “I am happy I broke the barrier,” she summed up. “I opened the doors. Once I achieved the feat, our women athletes realised that it was possible for them to win a medal. Mary Kom and Saina Nehwal won 12 years later and last year, it was PV Sindhu and Sakshi Malik. And that’s what gives me satisfaction.”
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