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Tokyo Olympics: How North Korea’s absence impacts India’s medal hopes

North Korea’s decision, announced on Tuesday, to skip the Tokyo Olympics because of the Covid-19 pandemic, will boost the chances of the two Indian contenders to finish on the podium at the July 23-August 9 Games.

Written by Mihir Vasavda , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: April 8, 2021 9:45:42 am
A woman wearing a protective mask to help curb the spread of the coronavirus walks in front of he Olympic Rings Tuesday, April 6, 2021, in Tokyo. The Japanese capital confirmed more than 390 new coronavirus cases on Tuesday. (AP Photo)

For Mirabai Chanu and Vinesh Phogat, the quest for an Olympic medal got a little less complicated.

North Korea’s decision, announced on Tuesday, to skip the Tokyo Olympics because of the Covid-19 pandemic, will boost the chances of the two Indian contenders to finish on the podium at the July 23-August 9 Games.

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How will Mirabai Chanu benefit?

Chanu, who competes in the 49 kg class, is currently fourth in the world rankings. Above her are two Chinese lifters – Hou Zhihui, ranked 1, and second-placed Jiang Huihua – and North Korea’s Ri-Song Gum. Only these four lifters have recorded a total of more than 200 kg in the 49 kg weight category so far.

Olympic rules permit a country to field only one athlete in each weight category. That means out of the two Chinese, only one can compete in Tokyo. And that, in turn, puts Chanu third in the ‘Olympic rankings’. Now, with the North Korean out as well, Chanu has parachuted to second place.

“It’s a direct competition between us and the Chinese lifter now,” says Chanu’s coach Vijay Sharma. “We will benefit from this, but our focus is not on what is happening elsewhere. We are determined to improve our own results.”

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What does Chanu need to do for a medal?

Chanu was in contention for a medal at the Rio Olympics as well. But she failed to record a legal lift in her three attempts in the clean and jerk category while she got just one proper lift in the snatch section. Since then, however, she has grown leaps and bounds, winning a world championship medal, Commonwealth Games gold and overcoming an injury that kept her out for a considerable period.

Sharma says Chanu has been lifting more than 200 kg combined during her training. Whether she can replicate it during a competition will be known next week at the Asian Championship – her first tournament since September 2019 after all other events were cancelled due to the pandemic.

Back then, she lifted a total of 201 kg (87 in snatch, 114 in clean and jerk) to finish fourth at the continental championship. At Tokyo, however, if Chanu even matches that performance, her personal best, she will be in fray for a silver medal.

That is because out of the three who finished above her at the 2019 Asian Championship, two won’t be competing at the Olympics – one of the Chinese and Gum. The fifth-ranked lifter in the 49 kg class is also a Chinese, and the next closest challenger, USA’s Elizabeth Delacruz, is far behind Chanu with a best total of 195 kg.

Although that makes the Indian a favourite for a medal, a gold seems out of her grasp at the moment as the two Chinese competitors have best lifts of 212 kg (Huihua) and 211 kg (Zhihui).

What about Vinesh Phogat?

While Chanu’s path to the podium may have become straightforward, it’s not the same for Phogat. She, however, will benefit because in a weight category brimming with world-class wrestlers, Phogat will have to face one fewer tough opponent.

The reigning world champion in her weight category, 53 kg, is North Korea’s Pak Yong-mi. And even though Pak’s absence will open up the category, Phogat will still have to compete against the likes of Japanese sensation Mayu Mukaida, who has had an upper hand against her, and China’s Qianyu Pang.

Very little separates this Asian quartet but with Pak, a wrestler against whom Phogat has a decent record, now out of the equation, the Indian will be able to focus more on Pang and Mukaida.

Any other Indians who stand to gain from N Korean pullout?

North Korea’s absence will also benefit a couple of Indian woman wrestlers looking to seal Olympic spots during the continental qualifying tournament this weekend. World Championship bronze medalist in the 50 kg category, Kim Son-Hyan, will no longer compete, making the route that much easier for Seema Bisla while in the 57 kg class, Anshu Malik will hope to take advantage of the fact that Jong In Son, a world championship quarter-finalist, will not be there.

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