On this day in 2000, weightlifter Karnam Malleswari became the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal in the history of the games.
At the Sydney 2000 Olympics, after lifting 110 kg and 130 kg in the ‘snatch’ and ‘clean and jerk’ categories, respectively, to total 240kg, Malleswari won a prestigious bronze medal to create history.
The historic achievement made her an instant household name and the masses named her ‘The Iron Lady’. She remains, till date, the only Indian woman weightlifter to have won an Olympic medal.
Before long success came calling. Malleswari placed third in the World Championships in 1993 and then followed it up with consecutive 54kg world titles in 1994 and 1995, before another third-place effort in 1996.
Appearing on a Facebook LIVE with The Bridge, Malleswari shared her experience. “The memories of the event are still etched fresh in my mind. I waited for long for this opportunity. I couldn’t take part in the 1996 Olympics but made the most from the 2000 Olympics. Participating in the Olympics was a big thing for us and no one thought of a medal. But I was prepared to win a medal,” she said.
Her motivation to pursue weightlifting was always to take up challenges. Malleswari said she wanted to prove her doubters wrong by taking up this sport. She also spoke about the reason why weightlifting is still not popular in the country. “Weightlifting is barely televised and the number of tournaments is fewer in India. So whenever any news of the sport appears, we tend to forget it soon. We need to have more tournaments and televise the sport more in the country.”
Weightlifting is a sport usually pursued by people from underprivileged background and women who pursue this sport becomes confident pretty soon after their performances improve. “Women are powerful, and we shouldn’t consider women to be weak. Today, more women are taking up weightlifting with the rearing of the Olympic culture in the country. A lot is still needed to be done,” said Malleswari.
Malleswari won the medal at a time where there was no presence of social media. There was not much a buzz about her. Even Lara Dutta won the Miss Universe title in the same year. However, the latter got the major limelight. “I won the gold medal in the world championships in 1994. It was the same year Aishwarya Rai and Sushmita Sen won the Miss World and Miss Universe titles respectively. They were welcomed with a grand gesture in the country, while I was not given any credit. I flew down to India, boarded an autorickshaw and went straight to my home. However, in 2000, after my Olympics success, I was given better recognition. It feels good, at least now on social media, people recognise me and give me my due credit. I wish we had in our days,” said Malleswari. She adds, “Still we are less popular and celebrated than cricketers and Bollywood celebrities. I do not know when that is going to change.”
Today, Malleswari is still an employee of the Food Corporation of India, as she has been since her sporting career began. She runs an academy for young weightlifters in Yamunanagar, Haryana. She wants to open up another in her home state. She wants to create Olympians by 2028. “I want to see a few of my trainees win Olympic medals, preferably gold, which I couldn’t win. It will be India’s first weightlifting academy and I hope whoever wants to build their future in weightlifting, should know that I am preparing future champions.”
Earlier in June, a biopic on Karnam Malleswari’s life, portraying her journey from her village to the Olympic podium at Sydney, was announced on her 45th birthday.
The movie will be directed by Sanjana Reddy and produced by Kona Venkat and MVV Satyanarayana. To be made in Telugu, it will also be dubbed in Hindi and Tamil.