Weightlifting is one of the disciplines which is rarely followed closely in India. The uninitiated only get to hear about it when India bags a medal in some big tournaments. We know the achievements of the likes of Mirabai Chanu, Karnam Malleswari, Kunjarani Devi. However, lost in the pages of history is the story of Ekambaram Karunakaran, who was the first Indian to win the Gold medal in an International Competition in weightlifting.
This achievement came in the Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, Canada in 1978. Karunakaran’s career spanned over a decade. He was conferred with the Arjuna Award in the year 1978-79 by the Government of India.
Born in Egattur village in Tamil Nadu, Karunakaran rose to success from a humble background. Initially interested in Kabaddi, Karunakaran took to weightlifting to gain strength and power at age 17. He was initially very thin. He was an instant success at the national level, winning the 52 kg class from 1978 to 1982. His international career began almost simultaneously. He took the gold medal with an aggregate of 95 kg snatch, and 110 kg clean and jerk lifts, totalling 205 kg in Edmonton’s Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium in 1978. His lift of 110 kg in the jerk set a new Games record. He won the Inter Railway Championship title seven times consecutively beginning in 1978. Two years later he won another Gold at the Commonwealth weightlifting Championship and broke 6 international records in Cardiff, Wales. Thereafter he took part in competitions in New Zealand and the Commonwealth Games in Brisbane, Australia; where he carried the Indian Tricolour.
He studied at Kadambathur Government higher secondary school and then worked with Southern Railway in Chennai.
The 1978 Commonwealth Games saw a total of 46 countries participating. This was the eighth time India was competing in the Games and the opening day proved to be immensely special when Karunakaran rose higher as a champion. He won a Gold Medal in the 52 kg category after successfully lifting 205 kg barbell like a mighty warrior. It thrashed multiple records at a single time. Karunakaran thus became the first Indian to win a Gold Medal in an International Competition. His name in golden letters was etched in the history of Indian Sports. Standing on the winning podium, with his first gold medal hanging from a ribbon around his neck, he kept his medal close to his heart. As the tunes of our national anthem echoed in his ears, a deep sense of patriotism and pride groped him. Tears of joy and achievement glistened in his eyes. All flood gates broke open, and Karunakaran wept like a soldier who’d won a battle.
His excitement and sentiments were more than justified, as it was a moment for which he had walked miles in the scorching sun with calloused feet facing the wrath of hunger and poverty. He wished his parents were there giving him their blessings. This was his first international meet. This was the first day, and this was his first international gold medal. Media-reporters, cameramen, journalists, supporters and his crew stood encircling Karuna in the press meet hall. His supporters dashed towards him for autographs and pictures.
He answered questions with the utmost demeanour and sheepishly flashed smiles at the camera whenever asked to. Amidst the paparazzi, he heard his name announced over the loudspeaker, “Ekambaram Karunakaran, Welfare Inspector in Southern Railways from India.” He recognised the voice coming from the loudspeaker immediately. It was his coach, J.D. Talang. However, he was puzzled with the designation announced, as he was just a mere class IV designated employee. He was then delivered the great news about his promotion. His happiness knew no bounds. He was granted the position of a Ticket collector by the Railway Minister, Mr. Madhu Thandavdey immediately after his historic victory.
He was welcomed to India with great celebration. K.P. Raju, General Secretary of Southern Railway Board drafted Karuna’s promotional letter and handed it over to President Narasimman for his official signature. He was shocked and disappointed when the President refused to sign his letter. He decided to report the matter to the Central Minister. Railway Board member, Mr. Maduthanda intervened, and he favoured Mr. Raju’s suggestion to grant the promotion to Karuna and later promoted him as a Senior Ticket Inspector.
When Karuna was returning to his village from Chennai in the Express, his train remained halted at Thiruvallur Station for almost 25 minutes. The railway station was flooded with thousands of people who had assembled to greet and congratulate Karuna. Karunakaran was honoured by Mr. Madhu Thandavdey, Minister of Railways. During a brief conservation, Mr. Thandavdey asked Karuna,
‘ ‘You’re the pride of India and Tamil Nadu. What must I offer you as a reward?” Wearing a light smile on his face and with a diligent expression, Karuna replied, “Sir, my village does not have a railway station. We’ve to walk a distance of 4 km to the nearest town to buy basic amenities.” The project to build a railway station was sanctioned as an immediate order of the Minister, and soon Egattur railway station became an operational public service.
The next day, all the newspapers carried lengthy and opinionated articles describing the historic journey of the prodigy, Ekambaram Karunakaran. Later, he received a call from the Chief Personal Officer of Hindustan Motors in Thiruvallur. He informed him that he had been offered a job with a very generous pay in Birla Group. Karunakaran declined this job offer with profuse apologies. He told them that he had been granted a promotion in the Southern Railways, and he was thoroughly satisfied with it.
The information is an excerpt from the book There Is Gold in Iron, written by Jagadeesh.K