Tokyo Olympic 2020, women’s weightlifting 49kg: Mirabai Chanu carries the weight of India’s expectations

Manipur, July 23: Five years ago, Mirabai Chanu 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.

As a 21-year-old, she had gone to Rio in 2016 after breaking N Kunjarani Devi’s record of lifting a total weight of 190kg with a combined lift of 192kg. Most observers expected her to put up a creditable performance. But instead, something went wrong; something went very wrong.

India’s lone weightlifter at the Games this time

Mirabai Chanu, 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.

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Late spring

On Saturday, Mirabai will have her shot at redemption.

But it has already been a long journey for the weightlifter from Nongpok Kakching, a village 44 km 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.

In a field of 12 lifters on the women’s 48kg category, she ended up as one of two lifters who did not finish her event.

Mirabai Chanu failed to lift 104kg in her first attempt in clean and jerk, followed by two more attempts to pick up 106kg. In her second and third attempts, the Indian simply couldn’t lift the weight which was below her then personal best of 107 kg.

In fact out of six chances – three in snatch and three in clean and jerk – Mirabai got only one successful lift. The pressure of the first Olympic Games proved to be an issue, she would later realize.

But as she gets ready to strut her stuff in Tokyo, Rio seems like a long-forgotten memory; perhaps even a memory from a different life. She is a weightlifter reborn.

In 2017, she created history at the World Weightlifting Championships held in Anaheim, United States when she became only the second Indian in 22 years to clinch a gold at the World Weightlifting Championships after legendary weightlifter, Karnam Malleswari.

Malleswari had achieved this feat twice, in 1994 in Turkey, and in China in 1995.

In 2018, Chanu lifted a total of 196 kg, 86 kg in snatch, and 110 kg in clean and jerk to win India’s first gold medal in the Commonwealth Games 2018. She also broke the record for the weight category.

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In 2019, at the Asian Weightlifting Championships, she won bronze in clean and jerk in the 49 kg Category. The total weight of 199 kg was her best then.

In 2021, she went past the 200 kg barrier at the Asian Championships.

With every passing year, she is lifting heavier weights, the clean and jerk have been transformed into one of her strengths and her confidence is sky-high. Now, she’s aiming for the very top.

In 2018, Chanu was laid low by a lower back injury that kept her out of competition for eight months but she showed she was getting back to her best by claiming the gold at the EGAT Cup in Thailand in 2019. It was her first medal after the injury.

Recently, at the Asian Championships, she established a new world record in clean and jerk in the women’s 49kg category. She successfully heaved 119kg in her last tournament ahead of the Tokyo Games and that helped her win a bronze medal but the big differentiator at the Games could be her performance in the snatch section.

Her best in the snatch is 86 kgs and that is way below the top two Chinese competitors. Zhihui Hou, world no 1, has managed to lift 96 kgs in snatch and Huihua Jiang, world no 2, has a successful lift of 89 kgs. Both the Chinese lifters also weigh less than Chanu.

But that still means that Chanu has a very good chance of getting onto the podium. The absence of another top lifter, Song Gum Ri, due to the withdrawal of North Korea also helps.

While Hou is the clear favourite in the event, some inspired lifting could see the 26-year-old become the first India lifter since Malleswari to win a medal at the Olympics. It has been a long wait and one she will be keen to end.

Chanu has reached Tokyo after undergoing a 50-day training stint in St Louis, USA and this time, the weight of expectations is very different. She isn’t expected to just compete; she is expected to triumph and she knows that too.

If she can match her best, she should find herself on the podium. That understanding can either pull you down or inspire you to go one step further. Either way, it is Showtime or there’s some heavy lifting to be done. As the sole weightlifter from India in Tokyo, she carries the expectations of the nation. Wiser from Rio 2016 experience, she has a bright chance.

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