On this day: Malleswari's moment of glory

No one had really believed that Karnam Malleswari was capable of winning a medal in the Sydney Olympics. Not during the past year, not during the run-up to the Games.

Gold medal winner Lin Weining Is flanked by Erzsebet Markus, the silver medallist (left), and Karnam Malleswari, the bronze winner.   -  AP Photo

She was up a weight slot, but had stagnated around the 225-230kg mark in her performance. No one had really believed that Karnam Malleswari was capable of winning a medal in the Sydney Olympics. Not during the past year, not during the run-up to the Games.

Yet, when the moment came, when the weight went up to 130.0kg on the bar in clean and jerk, the Andhra woman rose to the occasion. It was not the end of the story. But a total of 240.0kg was more or less the clincher for the bronze. As one looked back, that 130.0kg lift in jerk was the crucial one.

Many have argued and will continue to argue that Malleswari should have opted for 132.5kg for her final lift in jerk, instead of 137.5kg, and tied for the silver and gained it on lesser bodyweight. Or perhaps gone for 135.0kg and hoped for the gold even, ahead of the eventual champion, Chinese Lin Weining.

"We could have gone for the gold. But we wanted to make sure of the medal. The coaches thus played safe," said Malleswari.

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No one is blessed with hindsight. The coaches, Leonid Taranenko and Pal Singh Sandhu did their best under the circumstances. Had something gone wrong, even after reaching such a stage, and Malleswari ended up with nothing, the coaches would have been literally crucified. You can't gamble, go for the gold and ensure the bronze, too.

Olympic medals for Indians come once in a blue moon. Now, we can't really say that. We have two from two successive Games, one from Leander Paes and one from Malleswari.

"You require lots of talent, guts and some luck, too," said P. T. Usha that day. She was the first Indian woman to have come sniffing distance away from an Olympic medal, at Los Angeles in 1984. Now she was there in Sydney when Malleswari won it actually to become the first Indian woman to have that honour. Usha, of course, did not get a chance to watch weightlifting.

The Indian VIPs were there in strength at the distant Sydney Convention Centre, from the Minister of State for Sports, Shahnawaz Hussein, to the IOA President, Suresh Kalmadi and the Secretary-General, Randhir Singh.

As the contest began what struck many was the feminine charm that Malleswari exuded in contrast to the manly looks of a majority of the competitors, especially from Europe. No wonder the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) officials themselves are concerned about the image that the sport has acquired through the latest doping scandals that hit the Olympics programme.

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It was clear that the battle for the medals would be among Chinese Lin Weining, Hungarian Erzsebet Markus and Malleswari once the snatch classifications were announced. The Hungarian led with a world record of 112.5kg, the Chinese was bitterly disappointed that she failed at 112.5, while Malleswari was all confidence as she cleared 105.0,107.5 and 110.0 in her sequence. Obviously the idea was to play safe, especially in view of the generally below-par standards in snatch.

That Malleswari had a cushion of 7.5kg going into the clean and jerk section was a comfortable thought. The fourth-placed Aphinya Pharksupho was on 102.5kg in the snatch classification. That kind of leeway is quite a lot, but with everyone having improved their personal bests by huge margins, anything was possible, at least theoretically.

Malleswari and Markus started their clean and jerk at 125.0kg, while Milena Trendafilova and Daniela Kerkelova, both from Bulgaria, asked for 127.5kg and succeeded. Russian IrinaKassimova went one step ahead, she went for 130.0kg and succeeded. Of course, Lin Weining practically ended all the arguments about the gold by lifting 132.5kg on her first attempt.

Karnam Malleswari makes a 105kg snatch attempt in the 69kg weightlifting event at 2000 Sydney Olympics.   -  Reuters Photo

 

Once Malleswari cleared 130.0kg there was considerable relief in the Indian camp. Coaches Taranenko and Sandhu were looking a little less stiffer than they were moments ago. But still there were lifters left in the fray, still anything could happen.

Trendafilova and Kerkelova both passed 130.0kg and asked for 132.5kg for their second lifts. Kassimova passed even that. This is where the Indian coaches must have had difficulty in deciding Malleswari's third attempt. The Chinese was there along with the Hungarian for the gold and silver.

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Kassimova had the remotest chance of still catching up for the bronze. It could have been 135.0 for Malleswari's third lift, but then Markus's ability with her final attempt would not have been known. After all, Malleswari was making sure of the bronze as well as having a shy at the silver, even the gold. Kassimova came on at 135.0 for her second and failed after the Bulgarians had failed at 132.5 with their second attempts. Now, the bronze was almost certain for Malleswari. The Russian failed a second time, the Blugarians cleared 132.5, Markus botched her 137.5 and so did Malleswari. Lin Weining had a smile on her face at last. She went for an impossible 145.0kg - it did not matter then - and failed.

Both she and the Hungarian tied at 242.5kg, but Lin Weining had lesser body weight and had the gold. Malleswari had a career-best 240.0kg for the precious bronze.

In her hour of glory, Malleswari was bitter. "This is to prove my critics wrong," said the Andhra woman.

She gave credit to her family, her husband and coach for the achievement. Coach Taranenko had indeed played his cards right when he switched her to a higher weight category.

(This article was first published in Sportstar's issue of October 7, 2000).