Subcontinental Drift: Bronze Goddess

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All hail Karnam Malleswari. The 25-year-old from India's Andhra Pradesh state won bronze in the 69-kg weight lifting category in Sydney, becoming the first South Asian woman ever to bag an Olympic medal. She also put to rest the notion (expressed in this column and its bulletin board over the past few weeks) that subcontinentals are genetically or psychologically incapable of competing at the highest levels of sport.

On cue, everybody from the president and prime minister of India to the chief of the country's Olympic committee heaped high praise on the weight lifter. But the Indian Express daily put it best in the headline: "SHE LIFTS 240KG AND THE HOPES OF A BILLION."

Malleswari's success is all the sweeter because it was entirely unexpected —and it put her critics in their place. Only days before the Games, she was dismissed as a no-hoper, described in one Indian magazine as lazy and unmotivated, eating too much fried food and drinking too much beer. The author of that piece has some eating to do now: crow.

OK, so one swallow doesn't make a summer. But wait: The air is thick with expectation. Malleswari's was not the only notable subcontinental performance of the week. The Indian field hockey team held favorites Australia to a 2-2 draw; the Pakistani men trashed a hapless United Kingdom side 8-1; in tennis, India's Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupati were, as of this writing, still on course for a podium finish. If even one of these teams — or any other subcontinental athlete — goes on to win a medal, the 2000 Games will be South Asia's best ever.

That's at once pathetic and promising. As we've discussed in this column, it's a crying shame that a sixth of humanity can't seem to do better at sports. But two medals would be twice as good as one, and I will be happy to take the glass- half-full position.

More power to Malleswari, I say. May she be feted and richly rewarded for her triumph. May she become an advertiser's darling and make millions in endorsement deals. May publishers pay a hefty advance for her autobiography — and may it become a best seller. May Bollywood make a movie on her life. May she become a successful coach and inspire/train dozens of other athletes to follow in her footsteps. May she remain a household name across South Asia for decades to come.

Subcontinental Drift is a weekly column appearing on