Indian sportswomen have been the pride of the country at the Olympics in the past decade.
Saina Nehwal created history by winning Indian badminton’s first Olympic medal at London 2012.
At the same Summer Games, Indian boxing legend MC Mary Kom, who had numerous triumphs at the world championships, bagged an Olympic bronze in the first edition of women’s boxing at the Olympics.
Four years later, PV Sindhu and Sakshi Malik won silver and bronze respectively at Rio 2016, India’s only medals at that edition of the Olympics, to raise the bar even higher for female athletes in the country.
All of this though would not have been possible without the inspiration and immense self-confidence that weightlifter Karnam Malleswari gave Indian women at the Sydney Games in 2000.
Karnam Malleswari earned a bronze medal on September 19, 2000, to become the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal.
“That a girl could win an Olympic medal came as a shock to everyone,” Karnam Malleswari to Scroll.in.
The historic story though would not have been scripted if not for Karnam Malleswari’s steely determination.
Mother shows the way to young Karnam Malleswari
Karnam Malleswari came from a family of sportspeople. Her father Karnam Manohar was a college-level football player while her four sisters had taken to weightlifting.
But ironically, it was her mother Shyamala, the only non-sporting person in the family, who encouraged Karnam Malleswari to pursue a dream.
The story goes that a 12-year-old Karnam had been turned away by coach Neelamshetty Appanna, who taught weightlifting at a local gymnasium in the small town of Voosavanipeta, Andhra Pradesh, because she was deemed too thin and weak for the sport.
However, Karnam’s mother gave belief to the disheartened youngster. “She told me that if I felt bad about people doubting my ability, then I should prove them wrong by going out there and pursuing weightlifting,” said Karnam Malleswari, who started training on her own soon after.
“I got a lot of support from her,” Karnam Malleswari pointed out.
The turning point for Karnam Malleswari, however, came at a national camp ahead of the 1990 Asian Games, which incidentally the Indian weightlifter was not a part of.
She had tagged along as a visitor with her elder sister Krishna Kumari, who had been selected to the camp. It was here that Karnam Malleswari was spotted by Olympic and world champion Leonid Taranenko, who coached the Indian weightlifters.
Taranenko noticed Karnam keenly observing the proceedings so he approached her and asked her to do a few drills. It was enough to convince him of her talent and he immediately recommended Karnam to the Bangalore Sports Institute.
In her first junior national weightlifting championships in 1990, Karnam Malleswari broke nine national records in the 52kg category and a year later, she won silver in her maiden senior national championship.
It was the start of the golden period in Karnam Malleswari’s career.
First Indian woman weightlifter to become world champion
At her first weightlifting world championships in 1993, Karnam Malleswari won bronze in the 54kg.
A year later, she converted that to a gold, making Karnam Malleswari the first Indian woman weightlifter to win gold at the world championships. Later that year, Karnam Malleswari also won a silver at the 1994 Asian Games.
Karnam successfully defended her world title in 1995 and was gunning for a hat-trick of world championship golds in 1996 before settling for a bronze in that edition.
She had returned with medals in four consecutive world championships, which included gold medals in 1994 and 1995, a remarkable run for someone deemed unfit for the sport.
As she grew older and gained more muscle, Karnam Malleswari shifted to the 63kg, and was victorious too, winning her second Asian Games silver in 1998.
A women’s weightlifting event was then added for the first time at the Olympics at Sydney 2000.
Though all eyes were on Karnam, not many gave her a chance because she had not won a world championship medal since 1996. Moreover, she had also shifted to the 69kg, a category she had never competed in at the world stage.
How Karnam Malleswari became the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal
However, Karnam Malleswari loved proving people wrong and she did so once again in Sydney.
the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medalIn the 69kg weightlifting, Karnam Malleswari, Hungary’s Erzsebet Markus and China’s Lin Weining were the class of the field and it soon became apparent that the trio would be fighting for the podium positions.
In the final, all three participants lifted weights of 110kg each in the ‘snatch’ category.
In the clean and jerk categories, Weining soared into the lead, lifting an incredible 132.5kg in just her first attempt, while Karnam and Markus managed 125kg in their first lifts.
As it turned out, Weining did not improve on that, while Markus successfully lifted 132.5kg in her second attempt to move into joint-second while Karnam lifted 130kg in her second.
The competition boiled down to the final clean and jerk lift. With both her competitors having lifted an aggregate of 242.5kg, Karnam was trailing by 2.5kg, leaving her to lift at least 132.5kg to guarantee a silver on bodyweight or go for 135kg to gun for gold.
Karnam Malleswari, advised by her coaches, decided to go for a dominating win by lifting 137.5kg. It was a big jump to add 7.5kg from her previous lift but she had done so previously in practice and so left her with no doubts she could do it.
However, Karnam Malleswari faltered at a crucial moment. She lifted the barbell a little too quickly, and it struck her knee, causing her to fall.
A gold may have been lost but it gave Karnam Malleswari an Olympic bronze medal in what was her first trip to the Games. History had been created and the country celebrated a new hero.
“I was not affected by what people said about me. I know what I should do, and what I should not. I have to participate in the competition, go on to the stage and lift the weight,” she told Sportstar after the extraordinary feat.
Karnam took a maternity break in 2001 and was training hard for the 2002 Commonwealth Games but her father’s sudden demise led to her pulling out.
Karnam Malleswari did travel for the 2004 Olympics at Athens but a severe back injury meant that she was not at her best and she called it quits after that event.
As it turned out, Karnam Malleswari’s Olympic bronze turned out to be her last international medal. But it had given her a lasting legacy and her achievement became the springboard on which more Indian women brought laurels for India.
“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," - Karnam Malleswari