Karnam Malleswari. (Twitter Photo)
PUNE: If there is one Indian athlete who has maintained a low profile despite winning medals in every possible championship on the world stage, it’s Karnam Malleswari.
Despite her stupendous achievement and contribution to Indian sport, Malleswari has been leading a life away from public glare. Nevertheless, 20 years later, her Olympics bronze medal from the 2000 Sydney has not lost any of its lustre.
The first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal, Malleswari, who is now settled in Yamunanagar in Haryana, says the feeling of winning the coveted medal still remains fresh.
“The feeling is still the same. It is just that I know the real value of the medal now. When I meet people, they say that I am an inspiration to many girls in the country. It feels good that people respect my achievement. Aur kya chahiye life mein (what else you need in life),” Malleswari, the greatest weightlifter the country has produced, told TOI.
“Unlike today’s time, I didn’t get too many monetary rewards, but I got a lot of name and fame after my medal,” the 45-year-old, who had got Rs 6 lakh after her podium finish Down Under, said.
The Andhra athlete had won world championships gold twice (1994 and 1995), Asian Games silver (1994, 1998) and was already awarded with the Khel Ratna award in 1995.
For her, winning an Olympic medal was only a matter of time.
“From 1990 to 2000, I had won medals and awards at every possible platform. When I went to the 2000 Games, I was 100 per cent sure of winning gold had my coaches not miscalculated things in my last attempt. The bronze was actually a demotion,” the former World Record holder said.
“All I needed was to lift 3kg extra (133 kg) in my last attempt. But my coach felt I should lift 137.5 for gold, which was too much for me to lift. I still live with that regret,” said Malleswari.
The Indian lifted a total of 240kg (110 kg + 130kg) for bronze, while the gold went to China’s Lin Weining, who lifted 242.5 (110kg + 132.5).
“But I felt good when my medal was celebrated by so many Indians. I felt I had done something good for my country,” she said.
An Olympic medal is the best way to promote a sport and it was evident when shooting, wrestling, boxing and badminton gained popularity after Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, Suhil Kumar, Vijender Singh and Saina Nehwal won first Olympic medals in their respective sports.
However, a similar surge was never seen in weightlifting after Malleswari’s medal.
“Maybe my medal was not promoted that well. But to compare it with sports like badminton and shooting would be wrong,” she said.
“Unlike shooting and badminton, weightlifting is not a glamorous sport. There is more pain and less money here, so only kids from humble backgrounds and rural areas get attracted to it.
“The injuries are too painful in this sport, so people from rich backgrounds don’t send their kids for weightlifting.”
Doping is another reason the progress of the sport got a hit.
“Yes, doping was a problem in the early ’90s and many national campers were suspended for doping. But it was better after that till the early 2000s,” Malleswari observed.
“But since the past 4-5 years, the sport hasn’t seen doping like it had witnessed in the past. Moreover, doping happens in all sports but somehow, people have blamed only weightlifting for doping.
“If you see, athletics has so many cases of doping every year.”
Talking about the future, the Food Corporation of India employee said she expects medals from Mirabai Chanu at the Tokyo Games.
“Mirabai se 100 per cent hopes hai (I have high hopes from Mirabai). She is very hardworking and disciplined. Jeremy Lalrinnunga is young but has done exceptionally well. They both will go very far,” she said.
“I am hoping to train lifters from my academy, who can win medals at the 2024 and 2028 Games.”
Indian women medallists at the Olympics
Karnam Malleswari (weightlifting) bronze, 2000 Sydney
Saina Nehwal (badminton) bronze, 2012 London
Mary Kom (boxing), bronze, 2012 London
PV Sindhu (badminton), silver, 2016 Rio
Sakshi Malik (wrestling), bronze, 2016 Rio