The endearing smile on Mirabai Chanu’s face will be etched in all our minds forever, but only a few will know the pain that she has had to endure. Her silver medal effort in the women’s 49-kg class weightlifting competition in the Tokyo Olympic Games is the happy culmination of a journey punctuated by a range of pain — physical and emotional.
The 26-year-old has overcome the trauma of registering a no-lift in the Olympic Games in 2016 and the disappointment of missing the Asian Games due to an injury. With total lifts of 203kg, including 87kg in Snatch and 115kg in Clean and Jerk, she earned herself the Olympic Games silver medal, a just reward for the sacrifices she has made in her quest.
The challenge for Mirabai Chanu and her coaches was to not over-reach in the quest for gold. It could have meant that she could let the silver slip and land only the bronze medal. It was just as well that they were conservative in their approach, especially after the Chinese Hou Zhihou opened a massive 7kg gap with a 94kg Snatch.
It would have been nothing short of bravado had she asked for 124kg to be loaded on the barbell just for the sake of demonstrating that she would go for gold. She had set the World Record at 119kg in the Asian Championship in Tashkent on 17 April this year. It is unfair to expect her to improve that by 5kg, since the risk of injury would be pretty high.
Her success on Saturday, 24 July, is a great example of teamwork among the Indian Weightlifting Federation (IWLF), Sports Authority of India and Olympic Gold Quest. The synergy has created a positive environment around her, allowing her to focus on what she needed to do to be able to climb the podium in Tokyo.
The uncertainty imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic also did not deter Mirabai Chanu. It is not as if doubts did not cross her mind, but she dealt with those with equanimity. She did her best not to lose her muscle tonality during the lockdown in 2020 but when she resumed training, she would feel some pain on the shoulder.
Dr Aaron Horschig’s role in helping her overcome this pain cannot be overlooked. She said in the media interaction, facilitated by the Sports Authority of India, just before she flew to St Louis that the specific exercises that he had devised for her had been of immense help. This intervention needed the buy-in of the entire team supporting her.
Above all else, this medal for Mirabai has come due to her single-minded devotion to her sport. Instead of moping at home, she virtually headed straight to the Netaji Subhas National Institute of Sports, Patiala, after recording a disappointing no-lift in Clean & Jerk on Olympic debut in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. In the five years since, she has probably been home for five weeks in all.
In fact, she giggled a positive affirmation when asked if she was conversing more in Hindi than in Manipuri. “There are times when I speak with my mother that I remind myself to speak my mother tongue, but yes, since I am in Patiala most of the time, I speak more Hindi now than before,” she said, drawing attention to how NIS, Patiala, has been her home for years now.
Adopting a no-pain-no-gain approach to her quest for Olympic honours, she buckled down to a careful routine with child-like enthusiasm and, at once, a maturity beyond her age. She found the right balance and accepted everything that life dealt her, even skipping the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta to focus on rehabilitation to be in good shape for the Olympic Games.
She also reveals a human side to her when she admitted that she would feel the pressure of expectations ahead of competitions. But she has handled that admirably.
Come to think of it, there have been no whispers of her being a Prima Donna, no complaints of her throwing a tantrum. If anything, she has not given anyone a chance to point fingers at her. She has stayed positive, radiating energy, and embracing grace even in the toughest of times. There is no doubt that she has endeared herself to everyone who has come in touch with her.
Viewed from a larger perspective, it can be said that the sport of weightlifting in India has got a shot in the arm. For, a sport that has been beleaguered by instances of doping, the Olympic silver medal can only help shine a more positive light on the sport. It can be hoped that the IWLF will encourage coaches to equip themselves with greater technical knowhow.
For all that, the moment belongs to the genial Mirabai Chanu. Rightly so, even though her main competition was with the Chinese in the absence of North Korea’s Ri Song Gum, bronze medallist behind two Chinese in the 2019 World Championship. The Indian star had finished fourth in the 49kg class in the world event in Pattaya, Thailand.
Unlike in 2016 when the wait for a medal was agonising and long for all of India, Mirabai Chanu ensured with her optimal performance that India would not have to wait much to open its account in Tokyo. By becoming the third woman in-a-row after Sakshi Malik and PV Sindhu in Rio to win an Olympic medal, she has encouraged parents to let their daughters play sports.
Having been inspired by Kunjarani Devi, one of India’s earliest stars from Manipur, to take to weightlifting, Mirabai Chanu will now become an inspiration herself not only to youngsters in Manipur and the northeast region but also across the country. What she has achieved in Tokyo will resonate deeper in the Indian sporting firmament than her 2017 World Championship gold.
It is not as if the World Championship 48kg title is of any less value but since the nation watched her Olympic feat live on television and through a mobile application on hand-held devices, her Tokyo effort will stay embedded in the minds of everyone who watched her. With the shooters not landing medals on Saturday, she could bask in the limelight all by herself.
. Read more on Olympic Sports by The Quint.Family's Prayers and Mirabai's Self-Belief Win India It's First Tokyo MedalDay 3, Tokyo Olympics LIVE: Fencer Bhavani Loses, Men's Archery Team in Q/F . Read more on Olympic Sports by The Quint.