Conversations: 'I Did What I Could For My Country'

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Karnam Malleswari, 25, is the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal. In September, she won bronze in Sydney in the 69-kg weightlifting event -- India's sole medal at the 2000 Games. Speaking exclusively to TIME New Delhi correspondent Meenakshi Ganguly, Malleswari reveals how she got into weightlifting, and expresses disappointment over the way her country has chosen to ignore her historic achievement. TIME: When did you start weightlifting?Malleswari: I started lifting weights when I was 13. TIME: It is an odd sport for a young girl. Why did you choose to be a weightlifter?Malleswari: My sister was a national level participant. She was six years older than me, and I was influenced by her. TIME: Why did your sister choose this sport?Malleswari: She was an athlete and she used to train in a stadium. Some coaches spotted her, and they felt that she should try weightlifting. TIME: What happened when you decided to follow her?Malleswari: My sister was at a training camp in Bangalore and I went to see her. She had a Russian coach. He saw me and said, this girl has talent, let us train her as well. TIME: Weren't your parents upset that you were not picking a more conservative profession?Malleswari: My parents were very interested in promoting our sports career. That is why they let us go to camp. Many parents would not have allowed it. My father was a college-level football player, so he was interested in sports. TIME: How did you cope with school during your training?Malleswari: When I went to camp I used to take books and study there. My elder sister would help me. I also had special permission to miss classes and just take exams. TIME: Do you feel you received enough encouragement and help to pursue weightlifting?Malleswari: No. India is not short of talent, but there is no encouragement at all. Let me tell you something really odd. We won only one medal at the Sydney Games. Just one. And I have received nothing from the government. TIME: But it was reported that Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee personally congratulated you.Malleswari: Yes he did. After I won, he called me in Sydney to congratulate me. He said that he wanted to meet me when I got back to India. But there has been no call from his office. The Sports Minister [Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa], who was in Sydney, said I would get a hero's welcome when we returned, with a ceremony in Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Delhi. But nothing has happened. Remember this is the only medal that India won at the Olympics. TIME: Is that because there is not much public interest in weightlifting?Malleswari: It is very strange. The public should explain why they are so crazy about a game like cricket, where there is cheating and match-fixing, but have no interest in an Olympic medal. TIME: Have you received many offers for brand endorsements like tennis player Leander Paes did after his win at the 1996 Atlanta Games?Malleswari: Nothing. TIME: Why?Malleswari: Because this is India. I feel bad -- this is such a big achievement but there is no recognition. I am happy, though, because I have a good family life and that is enough. I tell myself that every individual has a duty to their country. I did what I could for my country as an Indian. TIME: Why was there so much bad publicity about you before you left for the Sydney Games?Malleswari: The magazine India Today wrote that I drank beer and did not eat properly. TIME: Did they ever interview you?Malleswari: No. Whoever provided that information was wrong. But the magazine is responsible because they published it without any verification. They have apologized, but they refuse to reveal their source. TIME: This kind of politics in sports must be very disturbing?Malleswari: People keep asking me why India does not win more medals. It is all very easy to talk about this sitting at big desks in air-conditioned rooms. But winning medals is not as easy. We go into the field. We get injured. We can't sleep because of the pain. And then when this kind of thing happens, we feel bad. TIME: Did that effect your performance?Malleswari: Of course. I had a chance of winning the gold medal because I had trained very hard. But I did not know whether I would end up going to Sydney or not. I was emotionally disturbed and it effected my work. TIME: What are your plans for the future?Malleswari: I want to win a gold medal at the next Olympics in Athens. I also want to open a center for junior weightlifters. India has a lot of rich people; if they want to sponsor this center, they should come forward. India has potential in this sport. If young people are trained properly and if the selection process is fair, then there are good chances for the future. TIME: What else do you think they need apart from proper training?Malleswari: Weightlifters don't get much work. If they are to train properly and be good, they should not have to worry about food and bills. If they don't have food, how can they lift weights? TIME: Do you think you will win a gold medal in 2004?Malleswari: If I train properly I have a good chance. I just hope I get the chance to compete.