Kolkata: Can the success of Saikhom Mirabai Chanu, the Indian weightlifter who opened India’s medals tally early in Tokyo Olympics 2020, be able to remove the stigma that the sport had earned in the country since the turn of the millennium?
The 26-year-old from the country’s north eastern state of Manipur became the second weightlifter after Karnam Malleswari, who had won the country’s first Olympic medal in the sport at 2000 Sydney Olympics, to achieve the feat.
Malleswari’s bronze came at a time when individual medals at the Games were still a rarity, with tennis icon Leander Paes ending a 44-year drought at Atlanta ‘96. However, instead of building on Malleswari’s legacy, the sport was tarnished by several doping scandals, including at the 2004 Athens Olympics when Pratima Kumari and Sanamacha Chanu disgraced the country.
The medal will be doubly satisfying for Chanu, offering her a form of redemption after the 2016 Rio Olympics where she failed to lift in any of her three attempts in clean & jerk.
A look at her career graph shows the steel in her character over the last five years - starting with the gold medal at the 2017 World Weightlifting Championships - becoming the first Indian after Malleswari in 1994 to land a gold at the Worlds. The next year, she won a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia.
Last April, when the Tokyo-bound athletes were struggling to get some competition time, Chanu set a world record in clean & jerk at the Asian Weightlifting Championships in Tashkent to throw herself into contention for a medal. The civilian honours followed in the last five years with the Arjuna Award, then Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna in 2018 and the Padma Shri.
This was also the period when her struggles with injuries began, especially her shoulder and back. In 2019, she went to the United States for a lengthy rehabilitation-cum-training camp under renowned strength and conditioning coach Dr Aaron Horschig. Just before the Olympics, she had again flown to the United States to spend two weeks at his academy as the injures had surfaced again and were troubling her.
“She is very hardworking and determined and has a strong willpower, which is evident from her comeback after the disappointment she faced in Rio de Janeiro,” says N. Kunjarani Devi, a legend in Indian women’s weightlifting, who has won more than 50 international medals including silver at World Championships.
Kunjarani said that Mirabai has come up the hard way, spending years away from home struggling with limited resources.
“Manipur is a small state, not so financially rich. Mirabai comes from a middle-class family and had to struggle a lot to pursue weightlifting. Her parents and family supported her and she also took care of them once she got a job with the Railways. She also got cash awards for winning medals at the Commonwealth and Asian Games. As a Manipuri, I feel proud that a girl from my home state has won India’s first medal at the Tokyo Olympics,” says Kunjarani, a senior officer with the CRPF posted in Delhi.