When a 12-year-old Karnam Malleswari went to a local gymnasium near her school in Voosavanipeta in Andhra Pradesh to take up weightlifting for the first time, she was shunned by a local coach Neelamshetty Appanna for being too thin and weak to take up the sport.
Those words spurred her on to prove him wrong someday as she seriously began taking interest in weightlifting. Inspired by four sisters in the family, who also developed a keen interest in pumping iron, Malleswari found the ways and means to rise above the ruckus. That rejection gave birth to a new sporting hero.
When Malleswari returned back to her village in 1993, she finally met Apanna again... this time with her first World Championship medal. And very little did one know that she would someday go on to put her village on the global map by becoming the first Indian woman to bag an Olympic medal during the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
At a time when not many Indian women looked up to sports as a career and when their participation in Olympic events itself was considered a big achievement, Malleswari shattered the glass ceiling, paving way for more women to follow in her footsteps.
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Malleswari’s iconic medal in Sydney now is just a few months away from completing its 20th anniversary. Although it did take 12 years more for the next Indian woman to clinch an Olympic medal, her feat was truly a gamechanger. Since then four other women – Mary Kom, Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu, Sakshi Malik have followed suit by winning medals for the country.
“Now everyone expects medals from girls and compared to men, they are the ones who’ve been winning,” Malleswari told Scroll.in.
“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.”
Even as Malleswari, popularly named the ‘Iron Girl of Andhra’, continues to occupy a special place in history, her bronze-winning effort has almost faded away from the minds of the public and even today, her feat is pretty much underrated.
But to understand the magnitude of her achievement at the Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre, one needs to remember that India were in sporting doldrums.
Coming into the Sydney Games, India had won just one medal in four successive Olympic campaigns after 1984, 1988, 1992 and 1996. Even the Indian hockey team, which had dominated the world by winning seven medals during eight campaigns between 1948-’80, had failed to win any laurels.
However, just when it looked like Sydney would go medal-less as well, Malleswari emerged as India’s saving grace. She was the only athlete in the 65-member Indian contingent in Sydney to secure a medal, a bronze worth its weight in gold.
“That a girl could win an Olympic medal came as a shock to everyone,” she said.
“Back in those days except cricket, there wasn’t awareness about other sports and what it meant for a woman to win a medal in history for the first time in 100 years. It took time for people to understand my achievement.”
That was only the third Indian individual Olympic medal after wrestler Khashaba Jadhav (1952) in Helsinki and tennis player Leander Paes (1996) had previously clinched bronze. She was also the first woman to win a medal for the country in its 100 years of Olympic participation.
The road to glory
Malleswari’s journey till then was anything but straightforward. She had taken up weightlifting, a traditionally male-dominated sport, when no one knew much about it and when there was a stigma surrounding the sport. Even relatives advised her from taking it up but what kept Malleswari girl going was support from her mother.
“The struggle was difficult in those times as weightlifting had not even been heard of back then and even now, very few know about the sport,” she recalled.
“When I started, women weightlifters were very rare. Participation itself was a big thing. There were restrictions put on girls and there wasn’t much coaching, training or equipment. My sisters and I didn’t have any weightlifting kits, nor we were aware that there were shoes and belts for the sport. I practised on mud. We would use a local barbell that would get bent at times but we would make it straight and manage somehow. I wasn’t aware that there was a platform until I joined the national camp.”
Although Malleswari never received any formal training during her early years, her career took flight after being spotted by India’s Russian weightlifting coach when her sister Krishna Kumari was training at a national camp at the Bangalore Institute of Sports ahead of the 1990 Asian Games. Until then, Malleswari had not even competed at the state level but with the way she was engrossed, observing other weightlifters during the camp, prompted the national coach to ask her about her interest for the sport.
Malleswari responded that she had been training all by herself, following which, she was asked by the national coach to showcase her skills. Impressed by what he saw, he soon recommended the youngster to VS Prasad, director of the Bangalore institute. Malleswari trained under the Russian for nearly 11 months and it was under him where she grasped the technical aspects of weightlifting. That foundation paved the way for more success.
During her first junior nationals in 1990 at Udaipur, she broke nine national records, competing in the 52 kg category. A year later, she notched silver during the senior nationals staged in Ambala. It was a sign of things to come. Between 1993-’98, she witnessed a meteoric rise to fame, winning four World Championship medals alongside two Asian Games medals.
In 1993, Malleswari won bronze in the 54 kg category at the World Championships in Melbourne. She managed to convert that into gold during the next edition in Istanbul during 1994, becoming the first Indian woman to achieve the feat. Later that year, a silver at the 1994 Asian Games in Hiroshima followed.
She successfully defended her title at the 1995 World Championships in Guangzhou. Malleswari was denied a third straight World Championship title in the next edition of the Worlds in 1996, where she had to stay content with a bronze.
As she geared up for the Olympics, the 2000 Sydney Games was the first edition where women’s weightlifting was introduced in the competition. There were doubts whether Malleswari would even manage to win a medal after being advised to move from the 63 kg weight category – where she won silver at the 1998 Asian Games – to the 69 category, where she had never competed at the international stage.
Critics had already written her off as between 1996-’99, Malleswari’s form had been declining, failing to win a single World Championship gold.
Close but not enough
Despite bringing home a historic medal, Malleswari still lives with a sense of regret. That day on September 18, the Andhra Pradesh weightlifter succeeded in all three attempts in snatch but faltered in the clean and jerk event.
She was competing for a podium finish alongside Hungarian Erzsebet Markus and China’s Lin Weining. In the clean and jerk event, Malleswari and Markus both succeeded in lifting 125 kg while Weining cleared 132.5 kg on her first try to surge ahead.
Although the Chinese failed her second lift of 137.5 kg, Malleswari and Markus managed to successfully attempt a weight of 130 kg in their next attempt but the Indian was trailing behind both her opponents.
It was here that a miscalculation on the part of the coaches cost her a gold. They advised Malleswari to lift 137.5 kg, a massive jump of 7.5 kg from her previous lift. As it happened, the total weight lifted by Markus and Weining added up to 242.5 kg and the Indian was 2.5 kg short of the gold and silver medal positions, finishing with 240 kg. Even a lift of 132.5 kg would have put Malleswari in contention for gold. Markus narrowly lost gold on bodyweight as she weighed 68.52 kg, compared to Weining who was 66.74.
The decision of her coaches still continues to haunt Malleswari even though she had was confident of attempting her final lift after pulling it off during training.
“I didn’t have any doubt in my mind before the final lift,” she said.
“That lift [137.5 kg] was easy for me but I did it with speed. It hit my leg and I witnessed a blackout due to which I fell down. But had I attempted 132.5 kg, it would have been enough for a gold. When we compete, we don’t pay much attention on the calculations or the competitors, since we are in our own zone. Our job is to pay heed to the coaches, go on the stage, and compete. So at that time, it wasn’t in my mind to question their decision. I was capable of it but a mistake from the coaches cost me gold.”
That proved to be the last medal in Malleswari’s career. Although she planned on making a comeback during the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, the sudden death of a father was a shock to her from which she never recovered. An appearance at the 2004 Athens Olympic was her final hurrah where she retired following a back injury. But the legacy she left behind lives on.
It’s been nearly 16 years since she left that sport, but no other Indian weightlifter has come close to touching her records. Malleswari still gets constantly asked about why no other weightlifting Olympic medal has followed after her but she believes it isn’t fair to talk about the lack of performance until the coaching and grassroots facilities in India improve, two factors which she feels has affected the growth of the sport.
She said: “If anyone from a rural area or village wants to train, they don’t have any facilities. Where will they go? We have talent but the lack of infrastructure and facilities is a big reason we are behind.
“Those who come into the sport belong to poor families. If you are training them for around eight hours, you need to take care of everything – right from food, stay and more. These kids belong to families, whose parents struggle to make a living. What fees will they pay? Par weightlifting ka jasba inme hai [they have the passion for weightlifting]. Not the child of an IAS officer, engineer, doctor or a politician.”
As the wait continues for India’s next weightlifting medal, Malleswari remains a trailblazer who not only changed the face of her sport but also someone that ushered in a new era in India’s sporting history. One that provided motivation, belief and a beacon of hope for other women to follow their dreams.