Karnam Malleshwari – India’s First Female Olympic Medalist

Photo: Scott, Barbour/ALLSPORT

In hundred years time, if a sports historian were to chronicle the achievements of Indian athletes, it is certain a lady by the name of Karnam Malleshwari would feature. The Andhra born weightlifter made a name for herself when she became India’s first female Olympic medalist in 2000.

Weightlifting is not popular, and is often confused with ‘body building’. In Olympics, there are two standard competition lifts – the snatch and the clean and jerk. Snatch is the single-movement lift from floor to extended position. Clean and Jerk is a two-lift process: from floor to shoulder position and then from shoulders to the extended position.

Karnam Malleshwari’s success isn’t a luck by chance story. Her father, a college-level football player encouraged his daughters to play sports along with studies. Karnam’s elder sister was a weightlifter who attended preparatory camps frequently and on one such occasion, Karnam too was inspired, and later a Russian coach saw the ‘raw talent’ in her in one of the camps.

Malleshwari’s story is one such rare occasion wherein she received support from her parents and the school.

In the late 80’s and early 90’s, Kunjarani Devi was making great strides in weightlifting. The Manipuri weightlifter was consistent and won a series of medals at international competitions in below 50 kg weight category. Karnam Malleshwari competed first in the 54 kg category, won gold medals, two in a row at the World Weightlifting championships (94 & 95). In 1995, Karnam Malleshwari became the first female recipient of India’s highest sporting honour – Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award. Malleshwari then shifted her category to 63 kg weight class, which earned her a silver medal at the 1998 Asian Games.

2000 SYDNEY OLYMPICS

In 2000, Cricket, India’s most beloved sport had taken a bad reputation with match-fixing investigations hogging the limelight. Many cricket fans were shocked to hear cricketers throwing away matches for money. It was in such environment, Indian athletes took part in the Sydney Olympics.

Indian hockey was always seen as a medal prospect and the tennis duo of Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi were tipped as favourites to win a medal for India. But, who was Karnam Malleshwari?

A handful of people backed her.

Malleshwari’s entry into the squad was not straight forward. On her return, Malleshwari revealed to Rediff in an interview – “On the eve of the Games, I was even blackmailed. Coach Mr. Sandhu told me if there was a choice between Malli (Malleshwari) or Kunjarani, then I would be the one who would be forced out of the team, because Chanu (Sanamacha) was an automatic choice. We were all tense till the last minute. We had no idea as to what might happen the next moment. I did not know that the choice was between Sanamacha and Kunjarani. I believed what I was told… I had won two world medals, but it did not seem to count for those who were involved in the selection process. I was hurt when someone came and told me that Sanamacha was better than me. Of course, the whole thing was being orchestrated. I felt bad about it. This misinformation campaign was being carried on by one of the coaches.”

In the preview of Sydney medal prospects, India Today magazine wrote Malleshwari off stating she was overweight, drank beer and ate ‘too much’ chicken and cheese. It hurt her as the report was written without being interviewed. She was questioned, “What was happening in her life,” by her parents and family.

Apart from the politics, the 5 ft 3 Malleshwari made the move from 63 kg (her usual category) to 69 kg class. Trained by the Belarusian Leonid Taranenkohe, who had won gold at Moscow 1980 Games and a silver at Barcelona 1992 edition, the Andhra weightlifter made this transition under his guidance; and Sydney Olympics was the first competition she took part in that weight category.

A 110 kg lift in snatch and 130 kg in clean and jerk, giving a total of 240 kg was enough to earn Malleshwari, the bronze medal, thereby becoming India’s third individual to stand on the Olympic podium. It is interesting to note that, women’s wrestling had no place in the Olympics until the 2000 edition.

Fast forward to 2016, sixteen years later, only two Indian women have emulated her feat, Saina Nehwal and Mary Kom – both bronze medallists at the London 2012 Games. In a recent interview to Outlook, Malleshwari reflected on that glorious day of 19 September, 2000 – “Since, I had won two gold medals at the world events, I wanted the gold.”

It was the news of her being the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal reduced her disappointment, “Yes, that somewhat lessened my regret. And it was the lone medal India won in Sydney. When whole of India was celebrating, I was happy. But deep inside I was disappointed,” she conveyed with a smile.

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