India’s introduction to weightlifting as an Olympic sport garnered immediate success in its debut year, thanks to Karnam Malleswari’s bronze medal at the 2000 Sydney Games. An unprecedented run saw the multiple world championship medallist become the first woman from independent India to win an Olympic medal. However, 16 years since that herculean lift, the sport has seen a downward growth trajectory with doping scandals scarring its leftover legitimacy.
Apart from sporadic international bans, the Indian weightlifting contingent was almost excluded from Rio. Two pivotal members in Pramila Krisani and Minati Sethi were banned by the International Weighlifting Federations, making the total count of lifters seven in one calendar year.
For this same number, India was removed from all international competitions in 2004, 2006 and 2009. In 2015, as many as 21 lifters failed to clear the National Doping tests, highlighting how it could be used as a sports equivalent for the ‘Udta Punjab’ issue. In fact, Punjab was almost banned by the National Federation last year, for registering the highest number of positive dope tests.
Despite the sport’s inherent drug problem, Weightlifting has been a surprise hit in one unlikely Indian territory. The North-East state of Manipur has pioneered the women’s version for the last decade. Hence, it was no surprise when 21-year old Mirabai Chanu from a small village 200 km away from the Capital Imphal, was announced as India’s sole female weightlifter at Rio 2016.
Unlike other states, Weightlifting has a surprisingly large spectator base in Manipur. State level events are showcased across local TV. This is where Mirabai first saw the pocket dynamite Kunjarani Devi. The Commonwealth Games gold medallist and Arjuna awardee inspired a generation of lifters in the 48 kg category.
Registered world’s fourth best lift this year
Speaking exclusively to Sportskeeda, Mirabai said, ”When I was a kid, I first saw Kunjarani Devi, the sport looked so appealing, I was baffled at how she was lifting such heavy weights. So I told my parents that I wanted to do this, with much reluctance they agreed. In our state, you can compare Kunjarani to what Sania Mirza is to tennis. Every Manipuri girl wanted to be like her.”
Earlier this year during the Olympic quota trials, Mirabai broke a 12-year old national record set by her idol at the 2004 Athens Olympics. She registered a score of 192 kg, defeating Kunajarani’s record by 2 kg. In setting the new record, she also registered the fourth best lift this year, making her an unlikely medal contender this year.
National Team Coach Vijay Sharma said, “Mira’s rise has been very strong, she just needs to add five more kilos in the next month and she will definitely win a medal. Unlike a lot of lifters who succumbed to doping, she has the willingness to lift, which could fulfil not just her, but India’s Olympic dream as well.”
Parents asked me to quit if I didn’t make it to Rio, so I had no option: Mirabai
The road to success was not as prodigal as it sounds for the little girl from Nabakosing. During her younger days, there was no weightlifting centre in her village, she travelled 60 km every day, for training. She said, “I have always said this, if the sport is not an obsession you will never be able to win. It’s not a profession, where you come put in your designated hours and go. You have to understand that people will doubt your decision, even you will doubt them, but if that is helping you become a better athlete then its worth the pain. When I needed to shift to Imphal permanently, my parents didn’t have any money. They said they couldn’t afford it, I told them that if I don’t qualify for Rio 2016 I would quit. Of course, after a point they realised I was good at it.”
Strength is the most important asset apart from technique for a lifter. During the snatch event, pure arm and shoulder strength could see you lift that extra kilo. Hence, every power lifter follows heavy protein diet. However, this particular diet plan was a luxury for Mirabai, during her younger days.
From not being able to afford a glass of milk to Commonwealth success
She added, “When I was in Imphal, I knew I had to prioritise, we didn’t have a lot of infrastructure when I was just entering the junior circuit. Our coaches used to give us diet charts, in which chicken and milk were an essential part of my diet. I knew I couldn’t afford it every day. So for close to a year I lifted eating the unhealthiest of foods, which did affect my game. When I couldn’t afford a glass of milk, I used to just think to myself that this phase will pass. Now, I have no problems, so it’s how you take it, its either a setback or an opportunity.”
Having moved to Imphal at just 14, Mirabai trained at the State Weightlifting Center. It didn’t take long for local coachers to spot her. In just six months time, she was being coached by former National Champion Anita Chanu. Within a year, she won bronze at the youth nationals, defeating participants three years elder to her.
From 2009 to 2013, she won regular gold medals at junior nationals highlighting her potential to transition to the senior level. She won gold at the 2011 International Youth Championship, along with another gold at the South Asian Youth Games. Mira added, “Youth level was very easy for me, it was not until 2013 I realised how difficult it was at senior. At just 18 years of she would go on to finish an impressive sixth at the Thailand Championship in her first event as a senior.
It was 2014 that established Mira as one of India’s strongest lifters. A silver medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, and a bronze at the world championship helped the dimunitive figure announce herself to the world.
India’s sporting “Udta Punjab” equivalent
Fighting against the world’s best, during a time when the entire country is going through a doping epidemic saw Mira develop a strong individualistic conscience. She said, “I’m not going to lie, doping is a big problem in weightlifting. Ever since I was in my junior days, I remember people doping. In a lot of cases, they don’t know, they completely depend on the coaches for supplements. Hence, they would get caught without any knowledge about this. A close friend of mine tested positive because of this. Hence over time I realised I need to be aware of the things that are allowed and not allowed, so I can track what’s going into my body.”
According to Mirabai and Sharma, doping is still a massive problem in Indian weightlifting. Sharma said, “See, weightlifting about a decade ago in India was plagued by doping. I mean it was really bad, but now the situation has improved a lot, I won’t say it’s gone, but it has reduced a lot.”
Mira added, “Every year at the Nationals, you will see lifters test positive for doping. Luckily the national camp monitors all of this, but when it comes to nationals, it’s a very bad scenario. I think we need to educate the sportspersons about supplements and how doping can be caught. Most people think it’s just a supplement, but they don’t realise how it could tarnish ones career.”
With just 45 days to Rio, Mirabai Chanu is ranked among the top 10 in her weight category. A fourth best lift in 2016, along with breaking her hero’s national record is enough motivation for Mira. She said, “I’m aiming for a medal, I know that I just need a few more kilos. It’s on the day, if I lift to my potential I will medal, if I don’t I will be disgusted with myself. I know I’m young and have more shots at it, but it’s medal or nothing for me at Rio.”
During a time when Indian weightlifting is yet to overcome its existent drug menace, Mirabai’s qualification is an antithesis to the sport’s current landscape. Her qualification and new national record has also ensured that Manipur continues its tradition of producing the country’s finest female lifters.