In the last couple of episodes in our special series commemorating 120 years of Olympics, we have focused on a few ladies who have beaten stereotypes to emerge champions. Coming to the Indian context, it took 53 years since independence for a female athlete to have our first individual medal. As such in this episode we celebrate our women medal winners, particularly our first heroine at an Olympic podium – Karnam Malleswari.
In 2000 at the Sydney Games, Malleswari brought laurels to her nation by clinching a bronze medal in the 69 kg light heavyweight category in weightlifting. It was the only silver lining in an otherwise disappointing Olympics for the nation which failed to see another podium finish at the Australian spring. The weightlifter from Srikakulam situated at the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh was in great touch at the Sydney Games. Not only was she barely in a medal contention, but she looked well poised for a gold as she lifted weights ranging 105-110 kg in the snatch and about 125-130 kg in the clean-and-jerk.
In the final round, it looked that the three-time bronze medalist at World Championships needed to lift 132.5 kg in the clean-and-jerk to emerge winner. But due to some miscalculations on part of her coach, Malleswari – who even is rumoured to have lifted weights much higher than that mentioned in practice sessions – failed in lifting the erroneously calculated weight of 137.5 kg. Had she tried for the required, corrected weight which was 5 kg as less as what she actually attempted, who knows she would have fetched the country’s first individual gold?
However, a bronze was still all welcome from a nation which had never been a sporting force to reckon with. Malleswari who was an Asian champion back in the mid-1990s tried to go for a second Olympic medal at Athens four years hence. But the then 29-year old weightlifter failed in her first snatch of 100 kg in the middleweight event comprising athletes under 63 kg weight category. The only displacement that she could cause to the barbells was a few inches from the ground before releasing them and straight headed towards the medical room. Later, she was diagnosed having a back sprain.
Though Malleswari never competed at the Games from that point, she is still remembered as the first Indian female athlete to win a medal at the Games. She had path-breaking achievements in Indian weightlifting scenario. Such was her domination that she was awarded the highest State sports award – the Rajeev Gandhi Khel Ratna – in 1995, which is some five years before she could go on to win an Olympic bronze.
The Iron girl of Andhra Pradesh – as she is fondly called as – opened the doors for many Indian girls later representing the nation at the Olympics. But none came to win a podium finish or reach as close as Malleswari with the star herself blaming it on the apathy and internal politics of the Federation.
Beyond weightlifting, Malleswari inspired Indian women athletes to do what P T Usha could not do at Los Angeles. Without an iota of doubt, she must have been a source of motivation for the duo of Saina Nehwal (badminton) and Mary Kom (boxing) to win a bronze at the London Games in 2012.
Saina Nehwal in a way was lucky to win a medal in the bronze medal play-off against Wang Xin of China while the latter pulled out due to strain at a point when the Chinese still had the lead. However, it would be harsh to be critical of the Hyderabad-based shuttler who topped her Group in the initial stage and was clinical till her semi-final loss against the then Chinese world no. 1 Wang Yihan. The medal was, all the more, sweeter for Saina who as an 18-year old fell to an Indonesian shuttler at the quarters back in the Beijing Games.
On the other hand, Manipur boxer Mary Kom however assured herself of a place in the podium the moment she made it to the last four – in boxing both the losing semi-finalists are awarded with bronze at the Olympics. It was maiden Olympic appearance for the five-time world champion and a mother of two at London as boxing was introduced to the ladies for the very first time. Though she mainly won her world titles competing in the weight categories in the mid-40s, she clearly showed her intent to win an Olympic medal while putting on the extra kilos to make herself qualify for the 51-kg group at the Olympics when the International Federation eliminated the lower weight classes from the Games. She qualified for the Olympics via a commendable show at the Worlds earlier that year in the upgraded weight rank.
Hope to see a few Indian female athletes returning from Rio Olympics with medals, if possible a historic gold!