When Atal Bihari Vajpayee called Karnam Malleswari ‘Bharat ki beti’

Published: April 2, 2020 11:03:35 pm

Karnam Malleswari

India was supposed to start its four-month countdown to the Olympics this moment. But forced into an unprecedented, grim lockdown as the world battles the Covid-19 outbreak, sport is staring at unfathomable despair. Indian athletes though have given the country reasons to rejoice in the past. The Indian Express looks back at a bunch of these memories.

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To this day, former weightlifter Karnam Malleswari remains an underappreciated Olympic medallist in Indian history. It’s six months shy of the 20th anniversary of her bronze-winning effort at the Sydney Games. She was the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal. Add to that two World Championship golds and two bronze medals apart from two silver at the Asian Games – the 1990s saw the five-feet-four weightlifter from Voosavanipeta, Andhra Pradesh dominate the international scene – culminating in her greatest moment at the beginning of this century in Sydney.

Her greatest moment for everyone, except her. When one is really good at something – possibly the best in the world – coming third is a disappointment that refuses to fade away.

“My immediate reaction was that I had never gone there for bronze and I always felt I deserved a gold. I had worked that hard. If I thought my capacity was to just win bronze, I would have been fine with it. But because of someone else’s fault (more on that later), I came down to bronze,” Malleswari recalls.

“But the next day, I realised that the whole of India was celebrating my win. This medal didn’t feel my own, but the whole country’s. That made me feel a little better. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee called me later that day. He congratulated me and called me ‘Bharat ki beti’. He was also reciting some shaayari – main sun rahi thi but samajh kuch nahi aa raha tha,” she laughs.

The conversation with former Prime Minister is one of her happier memories of the Sydney experience. On the night of September 18, the eve of her event, Malleswari was anxious, and like most nights before any competition, couldn’t eat anything.

“I had won medals everywhere by then and when you become an athlete of that calibre, the expectations of people take on another level. The Olympics is a big dream for every player. If we miss one Olympics, there is no guarantee that four years later you’ll get that same opportunity — especially in weightlifting.”

The next morning, Malleswari plucked some flowers from nearby and after a pooja with an idol of Ganesha that she carried around with her for all competitions, left for the Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre.

Weightlifting contests at the Olympics include two events – snatch and clean and jerk. That day, in the 69 kg snatch category, Malleswari’s first lift was 105 kg, followed by 107.5 kg and then 110 kg. She was successful on all three attempts and, according to her, did it with ease.

“My coaches could have asked me to lift a bit more than what I did. I had picked all three of my lifts very cleanly and easily. I had the capacity to lift 2.5-5 kilos more in that category,” she claims.

In the clean and jerk, things didn’t pan out as she had hoped.

“For the last lift, normally the procedure is to increase the weight by a maximum of 2.5 kgs. This is done because this is your last chance and if you miss it, the competition is over right there and then. If you have to take a risk, it has to be in the first lift or second lift – because if you can’t lift your weight in the first try, there is a chance to find your balance and try again. My coaches asked me to lift 137.5 kg in the final lift, a jump of 7.5 kg from my previous lift. I still don’t understand why they did it when it wasn’t required.”

Whether it was her own call or one that her coaches made, is an unending blame game. Malleswari would lift 137.5kgs from the ground, but couldn’t complete the jerk, possibly letting go of the gold medal. Her final total weight lifted after both events would be 240 kgs, 2.5 kgs short of the gold and silver medal positions. She believes a successful clean-and-jerk lift of 132.5kg would have put her right in the mix for the top spot on the podium, not to mention a bigger lift in snatch.

Malleswari has, on multiple occasions, talked about how lifting 137.5 kg was possible for her but on that day, she couldn’t pull off the play that would have likely changed the colour of her medal. But even after almost 20 years, no one in India has come close to her record and performances.

In her 20s, Malleswari had to go through more hoops and roadblocks than any average Indian Olympic athlete has to go through today. And after all these years, she describes the struggle that ended up shaping her.

“The support that was truly required, like going to a foreign country to train before the Olympics, was never there for me. In Patiala, the temperature can soar up to 45 degrees. Today, the training centre over there is fully air-conditioned. When we trained, we had to open a window – no fans, no coolers. Afternoon sessions meant changing t-shirts at least 6-7 times. And despite all the facilities in the world, the sad part is that my records, my performances, have still not been overtaken or beaten in the country,” says the 44-year old, who now runs her own weightlifting centre along with her husband.

Even before the 2000 Olympics, Malleswari was one of the best in the world. Her last major medal was the Olympic bronze. She had already won two golds, two bronze and two silvers at the Worlds and the Asian Games from 1993-1999 before Sydney happened. But the talent she possessed and the grit she showcased was never appreciated in her prime and that’s a grudge she still holds.

“In 1994, there were three world champions from India. Me, Sushmita Sen and Aishwarya Rai. I did it in sports, they became Miss Universe and Miss World. The whole world came to receive them at the airport when they returned to India. They got huge sponsors, became film stars… hum log auto rickshaw dhoond dhoond ke Nehru Stadium gaye.” She adds, “In 1995, I became World Champion, broke records. In 1999, I was conferred the Padma Shri. I was the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal, breaking 100 years of history. But the central government never gave me another award. No Padma Bhushan or Padma Vibhushan.”

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