Weightlifting was introduced at the inaugural edition of the Olympics itself, in 1896, but was not included in 1900, 1908, and 1912. In spite of its long existence, Indian weightlifters barely made a mark, until 2000, when women’s categories were introduced into the Games for the first time.
Indications were clear when she carried a bundle of firewood on her back, covered a considerable distance, and brought it back home without much hassle. But, Saikhom Mirabai Chanu – for the would-be teenager from Nongpok Kakching Village, in Manipur, hardly imagined where she would land up in a few years’ time. Predominantly inclined to sports, Mirabai took up Archery at a young age, but that chapter did not age well, as she slipped into a weightlifting hall at a local sports hall in Imphal. From that moment, she knew that weightlifting would be her heart and soul in the future.
Already into the groove of lifting enormous weights, Mirabai just had to push aside firewood and pick up the barbell. She found herself an instant role model, in the form of Kunjarani Devi – a former Olympian and also the most decorated Indian female weightlifter of all time. In fact, the living legend also hails from Manipur, so Mirabai could easily relate with her senior. Deserting the household lifestyle, the stage was set for the weightlifter to make a career out of the sport. And, she did not disappoint.
At the 2014 Commonwealth Games, in Glasgow, Mirabai Chanu stormed into the headlines when she claimed a bronze medal in the Women’s 48kg event, all at the age of 20. Two years later at the 2016 Rio Olympics trials, she escalated her game to the next level by breaking a 12-year national record, which was incidentally held by none other than – Kunjarani Devi. Her total lift of 192kg would rate her one of the medal contenders at the Rio Games. But, things went bitter in South America.
At the main event, Mirabai failed to lift any of her three attempts in the ‘clean and jerk’ section, while she managed to lift only once in the ‘snatch’ section. She was assigned a DNF (Did Not Qualify) against her name, a catastrophe that would haunt her for years to come. But, given the fighter she is, it was evident that she would overcome the past horrors and start afresh in the coming days. A year later, at the 2017 World Championship, in Anaheim, USA, she became the first Indian weightlifter in over two decades, after the 2000 Sydney Olympics bronze medallist - Karnam Malleswari, to claim a gold medal at the event.
She followed it up with a gold medal at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, where Mirabai, with a total lift of 196kg, registered a new Games record. However, an ailing back injury following the triumph forced her to skip the 2018 Jakarta Asian Games and the World Championships. After recovering from the injury, which already cost one year of her career, Chanu claimed the 2019 EGAT Cup in Thailand, with a lift of 192kg - 82kg in ‘snatch’ and 110kg in ‘clean and jerk.’ This was days after she finished at the fourth position in the World Championships, in Pattaya, where the Indian, for the first time, registered a total of over 200 kgs (Total - 201kg).
By then, Mirabai Chanu had already established herself as one of the leading sportspersons in India, with her receiving the prestigious Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award, in 2018. However, the biggest prize - an Olympic medal was missing from her trophy cabinet. Her eyes were all set on a podium finish at the mega-event, having also scripted a new national record in the build-up to the Games, during the 2020 Nationals, in Kolkata, with a total lift of 203kg (88kg in snatch + 115kg in clean and jerk). Unfortunately, all the momentum gained went to waste as the pandemic pushed back the Olympics by one whole year.
Out of action and devoid of International competition, the weightlifter fled to the USA for a rehabilitation cum training programme, in an attempt to end her injury woes altogether. It was inferred that Chanu’s left shoulder was weak, which put extra pressure on her back and right shoulder. The athlete underwent corrective exercises under the supervision of Dr. Aaron Horschig, a strength and conditioning coach based in the USA. Making the most out of the lockdown phase, the former world champion returned back stronger than ever.
At the 2021 Asian Weightlifting Championship in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, she claimed a Bronze medal with a personal best of 205 kg - 86kg in ‘snatch’ and 119kg in ‘clean and jerk.’ The lift of 119 kg in ‘clean and jerk’ was a new world record. The score did not earn her a direct qualification to the Tokyo spectacle. But, her ranking at the end of the qualification cycle was enough to see her through to a second appearance at the quadrennial event. Incidentally, she is the only weightlifter from India to secure a berth for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.
The withdrawal of North Korea from the Olympics has cleared the patch en-route to a podium-finish, with two of the top three weightlifters in her category representing the Korean nation. As per the current scenario, the Indian will fly to Tokyo as the second-ranked weightlifter in her category, only behind the active world record holder Hou Zhihui, of China. If Mirabai Chanu manages to replicate a similar result as the 2021 Asian Championships, a medal is almost certain. But, can she pull-off a gold?