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India’s weightlifters rally around Mirabai Chanu as she scripts Rio redemption tale

India's weightlifting fraternity is putting its weight behind Mirabai Chanu to secure India's best ever performance at Tokyo Olympics, but the superstar herself is focused on the battle within.

Written by Dipankar Lahiri | Kolkata |
Updated: July 23, 2021 1:18:49 pm
From Rio to Tokyo: Mirabai Chanu has turned from a surprise medal contender into a potential world champion in the five years in between. (Reuters)

Five years ago, Mirabai Chanu’s world came crashing down in Rio after she had five of her six lifts ruled invalid. This year, the 26-year-old weightlifter from Manipur is determined to compensate for having frozen up on the big day, when she takes the Tokyo Olympics dais on July 24 (Saturday).

Considered to be one of India’s strongest medal contenders this time, Mirabai Chanu’s main challenger on the big day is likely to be China’s Hou Zhihui. But Mirabai herself said her conflict is internal. “I am competing with myself,” she said. “I failed in Rio. I have to make up for it in Tokyo.”

The stakes, however, have risen in the last five years for Mirabai, who is now ranked second in the world in the 49-kg category.

Speaking from Tokyo, India’s weightlifting coach Vijay Sharma, who has been by Mirabai’s side from well before Rio, told indianexpress.com, “Everyone is saying Mirabai will bring back a medal this time. They are saying this on the basis of her rankings. When the whole country is waiting expectantly on you like this, there is pressure. But on the other hand, it can also be taken as motivation.”

Satish Sivalingam, who had been the only other weightlifter from India in Rio apart from Mirabai, said, “Mirabai has been performing consistently for the last few years and she has received top quality training in the USA. She is very likely to win gold in Tokyo, and if the Chinese lifter puts up a good fight, then she can win silver.”

Tokyo story

Mirabai, India’s lone weightlifter at the Games this time, landed in Tokyo on July 16, one of the first Indians to reach the Games Village. Her flight was from St. Louis in the USA, where she has been based along with national coach Vijay Sharma for the last two months, working on the biomechanics of her lifts and getting her long-standing back problem treated.

“It was a long journey (from USA to Japan) and it took us two whole days to recover from the jet lag. On 19th July (Monday), Mirabai started her training in the Tokyo Olympics Village. There has not been much time to enjoy Tokyo as a city or to relax. It’s been fully focused training from the word go,” said Sharma.

“There are better facilities here than in Rio, Tokyo is a better place as a city. Inside the Olympics Village, things are not very different from five years ago. Yes, there are limitations on movement around the Village because of Covid, there are limitations on what can be done in common areas — like everyone has to wear gloves while eating and the tables are covered with fibre sheets — but the food and accommodation is great,” he added.

Late spring

On Saturday (10:20 am IST expected start time), Mirabai will have her shot at redemption.

But it has already been a long journey for the weightlifter from Nongpok Kakching, a village 44 kms away from Manipur’s capital Imphal, who discovered her calling at the age of 12 when friends and family commended her innate strength to lift firewood.

READ | Weak shoulder, aching back: How Mirabai Chanu was ‘fixed’ in USA

In Rio 2016, Mirabai emerged as a surprise long-shot contender for a medal, but was not considered to be among the brightest hopes. At the end of the snatch section, she was ranked 6th in the final. However, even though clean and jerk was supposed to be her stronger suit, she failed to register a single valid lift in that section, thus having to return home with a DNF (Did not Finish).

In a virtual press conference earlier this year, Mirabai said she had been “completely broken” after the Rio heartbreak and that talking to a psychologist helped her get back on track.

In 2019, she breached the 200-kg mark in the World Weightlifting Championships, a mark which would have earned her a gold medal in Rio. Earlier this year, when she failed to lift her first two chances of 85kg in snatch at the Asian Championships in Tashkent, some painful memories threatened to return, but she pulled off a successful lift on her last attempt to register a total of 205 kgs — her current personal best.

Only weightlifter from India in Tokyo

Apart from Beijing 2008, when the Indian weightlifting federation had been banned, India have had multiple representatives in weightlifting at every Olympic Games since 1976. Why then has all the weight of expectations fallen on one lifter this time? Injuries and form have something to do with it, but it is mostly due to recent changes made by the International Weightlifting Federation to Olympic qualification rules.

“Personally, I am disappointed India does not have a male weightlifter at the Tokyo Olympics. I had complete faith that Jeremy Lalrinnunga would make the cut. But it was not to be. The IOC also made some last-minute changes before the Olympics due to Covid, which also did not help his qualification chances,” said Sharma.

Sivalingam, who competed in men’s weightlifting in the Rio Games, said: “India could have sent at least four weightlifters had the rules remained the same this time. But the new qualification system is too hard. There are no quotas, wildcards this time. If you miss a single event, then your qualification chance goes down drastically. Jeremy had 95% qualified for the Olympics, but then he also had a knee injury.”

“But mark my words, if Mirabai does get a gold or silver in Tokyo and betters Karnam Malleswari’s bronze from Sydney 2000, there will be many Indian weightlifters in the Olympics in coming years,” he said.

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