Our nation is a treasure trove of inspirational stories, and the world of sports is no exception. Over the years, Indian cinema has celebrated the lives of various icons, from cricketers like MS Dhoni and athletes like MC Mary Kom, to legendary figures like Milkha Singh and the Phogat family. However, amidst this cinematic celebration of achievements, a curious absence persists – the underrepresentation of women in Indian biopics.
It’s intriguing to note that we’ve produced films on a diverse range of individuals, from icons like MS Dhoni and MC Mary Kom, to folks like Milkha Singh and the Phogat family, to even people who frankly didn’t even deserve a column, let a biopic, like that of Mohammad Azharuddin and Dutee Chand. Yet, there’s an unsettling silence when it comes to recognizing a true champion, someone who not only made her mark but did so on the global stage, not once but twice. This distinction is a feat that no athlete, not even a cricketer, has managed to achieve.
It’s a puzzling scenario where even so-called feminists have seemingly sidestepped the depiction and acknowledgment of an athlete like Karnam Malleswari, who was a World Champion not once, but twice, something no athlete, not even a cricketer has managed to achieve Yet, none thought to even depict the personality of Karnam Malleswari, the champion weightlifter as she was, forget creating a film or even a book on her achievements? Ever thought why?
From Thatched Huts to a World Champion
The incredible journey of Karnam Malleswari, India’s trailblazing weightlifter, didn’t begin on the grand stage of the Olympics but in a quaint village named Voosavanipeta, nestled in the heart of Andhra Pradesh. Karnam was the middle child in a family of five sisters, and little did the world know that this unassuming girl would etch her name in history.
In the Malleswari household, equal opportunities were not just words; they were a way of life. Karnam’s parents, unwavering in their support, ensured that all their daughters received the same chance to pursue their dreams. It was this nurturing environment that set the stage for Karnam’s remarkable journey.
At the tender age of 12, Karnam embarked on her weightlifting journey in a humble thatched hut, under the guidance of her coach, Neelamshetty Appanna. At first glance, she may not have appeared as the typical weightlifter, but Karnam’s determination and dedication soon shattered any preconceived notions. Coach Appanna watched in awe as this young girl defied expectations.
As her talent blossomed, Karnam made her way to Delhi, where the Sports Authority of India recognized her potential and embraced her as a budding champion. From there, her trajectory was unswerving, and there was no turning back. In 1993, Karnam Malleswari left the world astonished when she clinched a podium finish at the prestigious World Weightlifting Championships, proving that she was a force to be reckoned with. Her journey of triumph continued, with a silver medal at the 1994 World Championships in Istanbul.
The year 1995 was a pinnacle in Karnam’s career. She not only won the Asian Weightlifting Championships in Korea in the 54 kg category but also secured the title in China with a record-breaking lift of 113 kg at the World Championships. These victories solidified her status as a true weightlifting sensation.
Before her historic Olympic achievement, Karnam Malleswari had already cemented herself as a two-time weightlifting world champion. She had amassed an impressive collection of 29 international medals, including a staggering 11 gold medals, a testament to her unwavering dedication, relentless spirit, and undeniable talent.
The brief lull before Sydney
But Karnam Malleswari’s journey was not without its share of challenges. In 1997, she made a life-changing decision to marry her fellow weightlifter, Rajesh Tyagi, when she was not more than 22 years old. However, her spirits in the realm of competitions were far from soaring. During this period, weightlifting in Bharat was struggling to shake off its tarnished reputation, marred by doping scandals. While Karnam herself had no connection with the wrongdoers, the shadow of these negative events cast a pall over the entire sport.
Despite the prevailing adversity, Karnam Malleswari continued to strive for excellence. In 1998, she managed to secure a silver medal at the Asian Games, competing in her upgraded weight category. However, this achievement did little to lift her spirits. The weight of the circumstances and the overshadowing doping controversies continued to cast a shadow on her remarkable journey.
History created at Sydney 2000
By the time the Sydney Olympics rolled around, Karnam Malleswari had resolved to make her mark on the podium, come what may. Competing in the Women’s 69 kg category, she faced formidable opponents: Milena Trendafilova from Bulgaria, the silver medalist from the 1999 World Championships, Lin Weinning, the junior world champion from China, and Erzsebet Markus, the bronze medalist at the 1999 World Championships from Hungary.
In the snatch category, Karnam displayed her prowess, lifting her weights with apparent ease, achieving a best of 110 kilograms. This performance secured her a commendable second place overall. The stage was set for a remarkable display of strength and determination. As the competition moved into the clean and jerk category, Karnam continued to shine. She lifted an impressive 130 kilograms, further confirming her podium finish. Her resolve was unwavering, as she attempted to lift a challenging 137.5 kilograms. However, inspite of her valiant efforts, the weight proved insurmountable on that day.
Had Karnam Malleswari succeeded in lifting that additional weight, she would have achieved a total lift of 247.5 kilograms, surpassing the then gold medalist, Lin Weining from China, by 5 kilograms. This would have made history, as she would have become the first Indian woman to secure an individual Olympic gold in any category.
Nevertheless, her bronze medal was nothing short of historic. It took 12 long years for any woman to come close to matching her achievement, and an additional 4 years for an Indian woman to surpass it in any category. It took Saikhom Mirabai Chanu nearly two decades to supersede Karnam’s remarkable accomplishments. In the Women’s 48 kg category, Mirabai Chanu won a well-deserved silver medal at the Olympics, continuing the legacy of Indian women in weightlifting.
Despite her incredible feats, it’s regrettable that Karnam Malleswari, a two-time world champion, has yet to receive the recognition and acknowledgment she truly deserves. It’s high time that we pay tribute to her remarkable achievements, not just in words but in spirit, ensuring that her legacy lives on as an inspiration to aspiring athletes across the nation.
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