Given the sheer nature of their sport, weightlifters often hoist pounds of iron that’s twice their weight over their shoulders. But what Mirabai Chanu will attempt on Sunday is something that no Indian woman in her category, 49kg (previously 48), has done before. Chanu, one of India’s biggest medal hopes for the Tokyo Olympics, is approaching the Asian Championship, which gets underway on Saturday, with a straightforward plan. “Lift 200kg,” coach Vijay Sharma says.
At the 2018 World Championship, the top four had all crossed the 200kg-mark, although two went on to fail dope tests. But Chanu and Sharma have set the two-ton lift as their first milestone in build-up to the Games, where Chanu’s ultimate target is to lift 210kg to stay in contention for a medal – 14kg more than her current best of 196kg.
A week ago, during her last high-intensity training session, Chanu lifted a total 203kg (88 in snatch and 115 in clean and jerk). “It’s given her a lot of confidence. Since then, we have eased our training a little so she isn’t over-worked. But the challenge will be to repeat the same performance in competition, where the pressure is a lot higher,” Sharma says.
In a team of 11, Chanu is India’s sole medal hope. This will be her first major tournament since a long injury layoff – she won gold at the EGAT’s Cup last month but that was a relatively weak field. Ningbo, though, will be her real test.
The Asian Championships take place in the Chinese port city in shadow of a series of doping scandals that have forced the International Olympic Committee to reconsider weightlifting’s presence at the Games. Zero positives from last year’s World Championships gave some hope that the battered sport had moved on from its steroid culture. But a re-analysis using advanced techniques exposed 8 dope cheats from the event—all from Thailand, a country that routinely flexes its muscles in the lighter weight categories.
That put further pressure on the sport, which has only a provisional place on the 2024 Olympics programme.
Thailand, meanwhile, has imposed a ban on itself and opted out of the Olympic qualifiers and that has inadvertently played out in Chanu’s favour. Two of the most dominant lifters in the 49kg category are from Thailand—Chayuttra Pramongkhol and Sopita Tanasan. Pramongkhol, the World Championship gold medalist who also holds the clean and jerk world record (120kg), and Olympic champion Tanasan are among the four lifters in this weight category who have lifted over 200kg. The other two are from China, the only ones who pose the biggest challenge for Chanu.
Why Asian C’ship matters
For Mirabai Chanu, the level of competition at the Asian Championship in will be as high as the Olympics, if not higher. The 49kg category (earlier 48), in which she competes, has traditionally been dominated by Asians - Thailand and China, to be specific. At the 2018 World Championship, the top four lifters were from these two nations while the best lifter from outside Asia – Elena Ramona Andries of Romania – was fifth. Her total of 188kg was 8kg less than Chanu's best and way below the projected podium mark of 200kg for the Tokyo Olympics. This trend is unlikely to change between now and the Olympics.
Hou Zhihui, who finished second behind Pramongkhol at the World Championships, set the 49kg world record with a combined lift of 210kg (94 snatch, 116 clean and jerk) at the World Cup in Fuzhou, China, earlier this year. Hou is likely to better the record to make sure her spot in China’s Olympic team becomes non-negotiable.
At the 2016 Games, the then 19-year-old was sent home days after landing in Rio after she was replaced by Meng Suping in the 75+kg category. Suping was added to the Chinese squad at the very last minute after Russian favourite Tatiana Kashirina was barred from competing due to the doping scandal that had engulfed her country.
Suping went on to win the gold while Hou left Rio in tears. As Tokyo approaches, Hou is the best lifter in her category by a mile. To put it in perspective, Hou recorded the total Chanu aspires to touch at the Olympics—210kg—in February this year. Barring an injury or a dramatic dip in form, she is expected to get better.
In that sense, the Asian Championship will be a straight battle between Hou and Chanu – the two lifters who are likely to carry on their battle till the Olympics. The performance in Ningbo on Sunday should give both lifters a fair idea about their Olympic chances.
The continental championship also doubles up as Olympic qualifiers, but there aren’t any direct spots available for the Tokyo Games. Instead, this is one of the six tournaments where athletes are required to compete in the 18-month qualification window that opened in November last year. The points accumulated at the end of the qualifying period (April 1, 2020) will determine who gets the quotas.
A majority from India’s 11-member team will be hoping to get some valuable points which will boost their qualification chances but as far as medals go, there isn’t much for India to expect. Teenager Jeremy Lalrinnunga (67kg), India’s first-ever gold medalist at the Youth Olympics, will make his Asian Championship debut but he will compete in the ‘B’ class and will not be in contention for medals.
Men: M Raja (61 kg), Jeremy Lalrinnunga (67kg), Achinta Sheuli (73 kg), Ajay Singh (81 kg), Vikas Thakur (96 kg), Gurdeep Singh (+101 kg), Pradeep Singh (102 kg)
Women: Mirabai Chanu (49 kg), Jhilli Dalabehera (55 kg), Swati (59kg), Rakhi Halder (64kg).