Illustrations & Graphics: Aroop Mishra, Arnica Kala
(This story was originally published on 15 August 2021. It is being reposted from The Quint's archives on the occasion of International Women's Day.)
Let's rewind to India in the 1970s. Women athletes were very rare and those who still chose to pursue were either ridiculed, or rebuked, or rejected. But all that was about to change forever...
A little girl born in a small village in Andhra Pradesh went on to quite literally 'lift' her nation onto a global pedestal. She was shunned by the local coach, demotivated by her near ones and rejected by most... But from all the societal let downs, emerged a hero.
This is the story of Karnam Malleswari, the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal.
Rejections And A Pillar of Strength
Karnam Malleswari was born in Voosavanipeta – a small village in Andhra Pradesh – on 1 June 1975. Her father Manohar was a constable in the Railway Protection Force and a volleyball player. Her mother Shyamla pushed four of their five daughters to take up weightlifting. She believed that weightlifting would make her daughters strong.
Her father, relatives and even village elders disapproved. But Malleswari’s mother was her rock. She recalls how her mother did much more that just motivate her, at every point in her life.
Malleswari may be every Indian woman's hero but for her, her mother is the real champion.
A Star Is Born...
She was twelve when she first walked up to the sole gym in her village, with a dream of taking up weightlifting – a male-dominated sport. The local coach shunned her for being 'too thin and fragile' for weightlifting.
But, the rejection became her motivation...
Malleswari had no formal training in the initial years. She practised on fields and mostly on her own – no coach, no equipment, no kit.
"Even if one child believes that no dream is too big to chase, my work here is done. I trained in the fields and never bothered about those who criticised me for taking up a sport that they thought was ‘manly’. Little girls must follow their passion irrespective of what society thinks," she said in an interview.
She was first spotted by India’s then Russian weightlifting coach, when her sister Krishna Kumari was training in the national camp at the Bangalore Institute of Sports, ahead of the 1990 Asian Games. Soon, Malleswari also joined the camp. And then there was no looking back...
The Rise And Rise of Malleswari
In just three years, in her first junior nationals held in Udaipur in 1990, Malleswari broke nine national records, competing in the 52 kg category. She was only 15 then.
Next year, she won a silver at the 1991 Senior Nationals, held in Ambala. Two years later, she won a bronze at the World Championships in Melbourne. This was her first international medal.
Her career high came in 1994 when she became a World Champion, clinching gold in Istanbul. With that, Malleswari became the first Indian woman to become a World Champion in weightlifting. She was 19 then.
That year, she also won a silver at the Asian Games in Hiroshima. Next year, Malleswari clinched gold again, retaining the top spot at the World Championships in Guangzhou.
A Bronze Worth Its Weight in Gold
Weightlifting for women was first introduced in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. And by the time Malleswari qualified and geared up for the Olympics, she had already won 29 International medals, of which 11 were gold.
For the Olympics, she was advised by her coach and trainers to move from the 63 kg category to the 69 kg category, where she had never competed on a global stage. Naturally, critics had doubts about her performance but Malleswari was confident and kept her eye on the prize.
No mediaperson was there to cover my event that day. They covered other events. They had no hopes of a medal.Karnam Malleswari recalled the day she created history
Ahead of the Sydney Olympics in 2020, India had won only one medal in the last four editions in 1984, 1988, 1992 and 1996. There were hardly any hopes of a medal this time too. A pall of gloom hung over the Indian contingent.
Just when it appeared that India would have to settle without a single medal again, on 19 September 2000, Malleswari lifted 110 kilos in snatch and 137.5 kilos in clean and jerk. She won a bronze, becoming the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal.
She was the only medal winner from India, at Sydney. Her bronze win made her the third Indian to clinch an individual medal at the Olympics.
It wasn't my medal alone. It belonged to the nation, to my fellow Indian Olympians. On the podium that day, it's wasn't just Karman Malleswari standing, receiving the medal. There was a girl representing the whole of India. And that feeling was very special. Olympic medal was a dream come true.Karnam Malleswari recalled the day she created history
Her medal win instantly made her a hero. She was hailed a 'champion, a 'true superstar'. When she returned home with the medal, thousands were at the airport, cheering for her, congratulating her. She lost count of the garlands that day – a day, she says she can never forget.
"Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee called me after my medal win. He congratulated me and called me ‘Bharat ki beti’ (daughter of India). That feeling is indescribable."Karnam Malleswari recalled the day she created history
Her Legacy Lives On...
Malleswari married fellow weightlifter Rajesh Tyagi in 1997 and gave birth to her son in 2001.
Malleswari did not participate at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, following the sudden demise of her father. She made a comeback at the 2004 Athens Olympics and retired soon after following a back injury.
And it took 21 years for another Indian woman to win an Olympic medal in weightlifting; Mirabai Chanu won silver at the Tokyo Olympics in July 2021.
The Khel Ratna and Padma Shri awardee champion weightlifter is popularly known as the 'Iron Lady of India'.
She currently runs the Karnam Malleswari Academy for weightlifting and trains young girls. She believes that the best way to give back to her sport is by popularising it amongst the youth and provide them with world-class facilities.
Our country has enough facilities for established sportsperson but there is hardly any infrastructure at the grassroot level. Through this academy, I want to create a platform where kids from across the country can train and prepare for all hurdles and pedestals.Karnam Malleswari
For every young girl in India who dares to dream, smashing patriarchy and breaking stereotypes, Karnam Malleswari is a game changer, a hero and an Olympic legend...