Who is Kunjarani Devi? India’s most decorated weightlifter who couldn’t win an Olympic medal

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Kunjarani Devi

Nameirakpam Kunjarani Devi, born on March 1, 1966, in Imphal, Manipur, is one of the most decorated Indian sportswomen in the field of weightlifting. Her journey in sports began in her early years when she was inspired by the legendary Indian athlete PT Usha’s performance at the 1982 Asian Games.

The Legacy of Kunjarani Devi

India’s ‘Iron Lady’ Karnam Malleswari gave hope to the girls in the country and raised the profile of Indian weightlifting with her historic bronze medal at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Karnam Malleswari is rightly touted as being the inspiration for many a sportswoman in the country.

However, even she was motivated by someone who is arguably Indian weightlifting’s first superstar – Kunjarani Devi.

Kunjarani Devi’s initial interest was in high-intensity sports like hockey and football, but her small stature led her to discover powerlifting. Her talent was soon apparent as she broke the national powerlifting record just a few months into the sport. However, her dream of participating in the Olympic Games led her to switch from powerlifting to weightlifting, as powerlifting was not part of the Olympic programme.

In 1985, she participated in the first edition of the National Games held in India, where weightlifting was added to the roster for both men and women. She started winning medals, mostly gold, in the National Weightlifting Championships in the 44-kilogram, 46-kilogram, and 48-kilogram categories. She created two new national records in Trivandrum in 1987.

Her first World Women’s Weightlifting Championship was the Manchester edition in 1989, where she won three silver medals. Since then, she has taken part in seven successive World Championships and has won medals at every one of those competitions. However, she could not get to the top spot, having always been content with silver medals.

In the Asian Games in Beijing in 1990 and Hiroshima in 1994, she managed to secure a bronze medal. She has had better luck in the Asian Weightlifting Championships, where she has been a regular visitor. The Indian weightlifter won three gold medals in the 48kg – overall, clean and jerk, and snatch – at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester.

Between her first and last medals, Kunjarani Devi’s career lasted an astonishing 17 years, something rare for a woman in power sport.

Kunjarani Devi was a recipient of the prestigious Arjuna Award in 1990 and shared the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award with Leander Paes in 1996-1997. She also captained the Indian Police team from 1996 to 1998.

Despite her many achievements, Kunjarani Devi’s journey was not without challenges. The transition from powerlifting to weightlifting was not easy, as the latter required more technique compared to the former, which emphasized strength. Moreover, she had to compete in different weight categories, which posed its own set of challenges.

Her journey gave Manipur the platform it needed to produce future Olympic medallists like MC Mary Kom and weightlifter Mirabai Chanu, who has cited Kunjarani as an inspiration.

Though Kunjarani Devi’s legacy is unmatchable in the history of India’s weightlifting, however, it’s quite surprising to know that she never won an Olympic medal in her illustrious career which lasted for almost 20 years.

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