It took a combined lift of 202 kg for Mirabai Chanu to get the weight off her shoulders.
Silver was always there for her taking. Chanu knew she simply had to turn up and do the bare minimum to get on the podium. But there wasn’t a lot of fun in following this plain-vanilla script. So, Vijay Sharma – the gentle giant in the corner of the iron-pumping, Olympic-medal winning Chanu – decided to throw the gauntlet on the eve of the competition.
The only way, he was convinced, to enhance whatever theoretical chance Chanu had of winning a gold medal was by forcing a mistake from the Chinese lifter, Hou Zhihui. So, when the entry weights were revealed on Friday, Chanu declared she’d lift 210kg – five more than her personal best, which is also a national record.
At that point, the only priority for Chanu and Sharma was to cut the lifter’s weight by two kilos to meet the entry standard. It is pretty standard for athletes to weigh a couple of kilos more than their competition weight.
“We alter her diet accordingly, for example by removing all carbs. Our idea was to push our limit so we could make the Chinese to work harder for the medal. That way, there was a chance for us to force a mistake,” Sharma says. “Our target of 210kg was very realistic. We had prepared for it and it was just a matter of execution.”
Weightlifting, in a competitive environment at least, isn’t a mindless exercise about lifting whatever your body can. Behind the scenes, there’s a constant cat-and-mouse game being played, with coaches constantly keeping one eye on what the rival lifter is doing to improvise their strategies.
In the 49kg category, the hierarchy is defined: China, India and the rest. Indonesia’s Aisah Windy Cantika kept her country’s tradition alive of winning an Olympic medal in weightlifting at every edition since Sydney 2000, by taking bronze on Saturday, but she was far off from the benchmarks set by Zhihui and Chanu.
They both have their own strengths. The Chinese rules the snatch event, where the barbell has to be lifted over the head in one, smooth motion. And the Indian is the world record holder in the clean-and-jerk segment, where the weight has to be lifted in two motions. “If we would have kept the gap to a minimum after the snatch segment, we could have put pressure on the Chinese lifter,” Sharma says.
But when the time came, India had to alter its aggressive strategy and adopt a more cautious approach. “We were all set with our planning on Friday afternoon but later in the day, Mira had her periods. She was in a lot of pain throughout Friday night and on the day of the competition,” Sharma says.
It is a standard practice for athletes around the world to track their menstrual cycle to ensure their performance does not get affected while also trying to remain healthy and prolong their careers. “But sometimes, when the training load gets heavy, the menstrual cycle gets disturbed. Mira has been competing for a decade so dealing with this scenario is a part of her preparation,” Sharma says.
Because of the anti-doping laws, and especially in a sport with a poor reputation in this area, it wasn’t possible for Chanu to simply pop a pill and compete. So, they simply had to adopt a safety-first approach.
Originally, the plan was to lift 86kg in her first snatch attempt. That weight was brought down by a couple of kilos. And the first clean-and-jerk attempt, which was initially set at 113kg, was cut by 3 kilos. “The competition was safe, so we chose to make sure not to exert her,” Sharma says.
Eventually, the gold was settled at 210kg. This isn’t to suggest that the outcome would have been different had Chanu gone all out. Zhihui, who smashed the Olympic records, would have then changed her weights accordingly.
Chanu, still, bettered her lift in the snatch, an event that has for long been her weak link. “It’s these little improvements that have mattered eventually,” she says.
For both Chanu and Sharma, the silver is a closure of sorts after the ‘debacle’ in Rio five years ago. “Even when we won the world championship or got the world record, that disappointment was there. So this is redemption for us,” Sharma says.
Chanu looks more relieved than happy. “At least now, I will sleep peacefully.”