Around 21 years before Mirabai Chanu scripted history at the grandest sporting event in the world, bringing home India's first Olympic silver medal in weightlifting, there was another woman by the name of Karnam Malleswari who achieved a rare feat. The legendary weightlifter holds the distinguished record of being the first Indian woman to win a medal at the Olympics.
On September 19, 2000, Karnam scripted history by winning the bronze medal in women's 69kg weightlifting at the 2000 Sydney Games. But what makes her victory iconic is the odds she had to overcome to reach that feat.
Out of the 15 Olympic medals India has clinched in the last three Olympics, seven have been won by women. But two decades ago in India, such gender parity in international sports was unthinkable. Malleswari belonged to a generation when participating in the Games was an achievement in itself, and winning a medal was an unattainable dream. To top it all, she was a woman who lifted weights as part of a sport in the 1990s.
A Record Breaker
Born in a remote village of Voosavanipeta, Andhra Pradesh, she started training at the early age of 12 and moved to Delhi a few years later to avail better training. Soon she was spotted by the Sports Authority of India, and in 1990, Malleswari joined the national camp. In 1994, Malleswari became the first Indian woman weightlifter to win a gold medal at the World Championships. That same year she won a silver medal at the Asian Games. She won yet another gold medal at the 1995 World Championships in the 54kg category. A silver-medal victory at the 1998 Asian Games meant Malleswari had won medals in six major international tournaments in the 1990s.
A Strained Relationship
However, the International Olympic Committee did not include women's weightlifting as an Olympic sport till Sydney 2000. While she prepared herself to participate in the maiden event at the Olympics, many believed she had passed her prime. Even as a world champion in her sport, Malleswari had a strained relationship with the media. She was deemed unfit and was subject to unfavourable comments about her physique and eating habits by some sections of the media.
She also had to change her weight category to compete in the Olympics. While she had won all her previous medals in the 54kg category, the weightlifter had to increase her weight by 15kg to compete in the 69kg category.
2.5kg Short Of An Olympic Gold
Karnam Malleswari lifted 110kg in the 'snatch', 130kg in 'clean and jerk' categories to lift a total weight of 240kg to secure the third position behind China's Lin Weining (242.5 kg) and Hungary's Erzsebet Markus (242.5kg). If not for the ambitious 137.5kg try in her third attempt, she could have won the gold. But gold or not, she had already scripted history on that day, becoming the first Indian woman to win a medal at the Olympics. She was the only women weightlifter from India to win an Olympic medal until Mirabai Chanu.
Today, revered as the 'Iron Lady' of Indian Sports, Karnam Malleswari broke the glass ceiling, allowing athletes like Mirabai Chanu to dream of an Olympic podium finish and climb higher.