September 19, 2000. Sydney, Australia. The final of the 69kg women's weightlifting. Enter, stage left, the first lifter, India's Karnam Malleswari. She walks rapidly up to the stage, the five Olympic rings framing the piece of metal in front of her. Bar and plates put together, it weighs 105 kg. She pauses at the chalk bowl. Three seconds, tops. Another, shorter pause as she walks towards the bar, eyes almost shut. She gets to the bar. Bend, grunt, lift, stare at the world, drop, walk off.
Malleswari started weightlifting when she was 12, more than a decade - 13 years, to be exact - before the Sydney Olympics. She isn't from a big town. Google Maps does not identify Voosavanipeta, the town in Andhra Pradesh she comes from. The nearest big town is Amadalavalasa, and it's a good 128 km north of Visakhapatnam.
She took up the sport because of her elder sister, because there was a gym nearby; and because she was physically strong. Her father did not like it, nor did many of her relatives -- that all-encompassing yoke of 'what will happen to her marriage prospects?' their dominant concern. Her mother, though, believed. And so she lifted, and lifted some more. All the way to a World Championship bronze by the time she was 18.
By 20, she had two World Championship golds. By 23, another WC bronze and two Asiad Silvers. When the International Olympic Committee (IOC) included women's weightlifting as an Olympic sport for Sydney, many thought it had come after Malleswari's career had peaked, that having changed weight classes drastically (from the 54kg she'd won her Worlds medals in to the 69kg in Sydney) she stood no chance. Many wrote her off.
Many. Not her.
Up goes Malleswari for her third attempt at the Snatch. She has made 105 kg and 107.5 kg look easy. She makes 110kg look just as easy. Her lifting routine sets her apart from everyone else. There is no contemplative pause at the bar. There is no shuffling of feet before liftoff. She does not stagger with the bar lifted high over her head. An almost imperceptible shiver of her massive triceps and a trembling of her abs are all the indication there is to the sheer strength on show.
Not that there were many Indians there to observe the nuances. Most of the athletes, and media, were at the hockey stadium cheering on the Indian men as they played hosts Australia in a group match. Only four of the 42 Indian journalists on ground were at the weightlifting.
Not that she cared.
In the buildup to the Games, Malleswari had been called overweight, told that her resolve had gone, that she was no longer a champion. A leading magazine published a feature in which they said she loved fried food... and beer. She had had to defend herself to her family.
As much as she railed against them, her image had taken a battering. So she had closed ranks, even more. She had ignored the media. It had not mattered to her, at that moment, who was there to watch her.
She had always struggled for acceptance. She came from the hinterlands. She was dark and did not fit the conventional definition of beauty. She was a champion in a sport generally associated with bulky men and dingy, dark gyms. She had large shoulders, which she tried to hide in baggy clothes. She wasn't the most articulate. And she was capable of lifting the average Indian male and his brother over her head.
None of this should have mattered, but it did. More than the medals. She had taken it all, as Michael Jordan would say, personally.
Weightlifting is a simple sport, really. There are two parts to it. The first is 'Snatch', where you bend and lift the bar high over your head in one motion. The second is 'Clean & Jerk', where you bend, lift the bar onto your chest, pause for a minute and lift it over your head. Two motions there, and it is always a heavier load. The medals go to the ones who lift the most, combined.
Right now, Malleswari is under a little pressure. Hungary's Erzsebet Markus has set a world record in the Snatch, lifting 112.5 kg, two and a half more than her and China's Lin Weining, who just happens to be the world record holder for total weight lifted. In the Clean & Jerk, Malleswari starts with a neat 125 kg. It's matched by Markus and bettered, stunningly, by Weining as she lifts 132.5 kg. After the first round of Clean & Jerk, the totals stand at 242.5 kg for Weining, 237.5 for Markus and 235.0 for Malleswari. The way the lifts are going, though, bronze is more or less assured for the Indian.
Bronze, assured. The safety refuge of headline writers and sports fans across our nation. 'Phew! At least, we have won a bronze.'
Before leaving for Sydney, Malleswari had been told by almost everyone that just competing in the Olympics was a win. To not get her hopes up. Ask any athlete, though, and an expression of relief turns into one of insult sharpish. No one, least of all at the Olympic Games, is competing for third place. They all want the ultimate prize. They want gold.
Weining misses with a 137.5 kg attempt. Markus lifts 130 kg to level with Weining at 242.5 overall. Malleswari lifts 130 to make it 240.
Malleswari goes again. And she's going big. 137.5. She and her coaches want to blow the competition out of the water. This lift would put her at 247.5, five and a half kilos clear at the top. She lifts it up, rests the bar on her shoulders. Something's off, though. As she moves to jerk it over her head, she buckles and bam! The bar drops, and she's walking away disgusted, furious. Weining and Markus miss their next attempts. By two and a half kilograms, it is bronze for Malleswari.
To this day, Malleswari maintains it was the coaching team's fault. A gross miscalculation. 137.5 kg had been the highest she had lifted in practice, and she had gone for it at the Olympics. If only she, her team, had chosen to lift just 133 kg. If only.
Malleswari feels the pain of that missing 2.5 kg acutely. Who can blame her, truly? For a decade before the Games, she had spent 10 hours a day, almost every day, lifting tons and tons of metal, only for the most precious metal of them all to elude her by a paltry two-and-a-half kilos.
Fame came with the medal, of course. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the then Prime Minister of India, called to wish her. "Bharat ki beti", he called her. Daughter of India. There were bouquets and cash prizes and generous words from politicians and influential people across the nation. But it would all die out, soon, the problems of perception not strong enough to be thoroughly dissipated by the sheen of an Olympic bronze.
She would participate in the 2004 Athens Olympics and not register a score, and her career would end in a cloud of doping allegations - all unproven. Where it was not her who was implicated personally, it would be her sport. Two Indian women weightlifters tested positive for banned substances in Athens. The International Weightlifting Federation suspended India from international competition twice between 2004 and 2006, as the number of Indians testing positive skyrocketed.
Malleswari faded away, and with her the tale of her medal. Other women athletes stepped up to the big stage. The Nehwals, the Koms, the Sindhus. They were more urbane, more relatable, more endorsement-friendly. But they all needed to punch through the hole in the ceiling that Malleswari had made for them.
Today, Malleswari is still an employee of the Food Corporation of India, as she has been since her sporting career began. She runs an academy for young weightlifters in Yamunanagar, Haryana. She wants to open up another in her home state. She wants to create Olympians by 2028. She wants that to be her legacy. Maybe it won't take until 2028. A few months ago, plans for that ultimate validation by Indian society -- a biopic -- were announced. Maybe once the movie is out, the nation's collective memory will be rekindled. Of a woman who was stronger than any Indian before her. Of a woman who went where no Indian woman had gone before.
Maybe then she will be remembered as more than just the answer to a quiz question.
What a question it is, though. Who was the first Indian woman, ever, to win an Olympic medal? 19 September 2000, Olympic bronze, Karnam Malleswari.