In sport, there is this idea of winning momentum that everyone keeps talking about. Winning medals is an infectious habit too. At the Olympics, India has never actually felt the virality of the grand podium. This right from the halcyon days of hockey, to the present era of wrestlers, boxers, shooters and badminton players. Though still caught between the hyperbole woven by hope and dreams, and the cynicism derived from cold statistical reality, this day, the 24th day of July 2021, we can be excused to believe that Saikhom Mirabai Chanu could be the trigger an Indian Olympic campaign always needed to break out of the scraping-home-a-medal-or-two habit. It has been a dogma that has made non-believers of the best of us invested in Indian sport physically, emotionally, and in all other ways possible.
Indians getting a chance to celebrate on the opening day of the Olympic Games is a rarity. It is a record. It is history. Weightlifter Mirabai Chanu has immortalised herself in lores with her silver at the Tokyo Olympics on Saturday.
Breathe… Let the moment pass. Let the podium — stifled by Covid-19 protocols that protect the athletes but sadly hide their emotions too — be immortalised on the mediums that define this era in human history. Much like how Mirabai did after her final lift — a failed clean and jerk attempt of 117kg. By then, she had already sealed her silver in the women’s 49kg category behind China’s Hou Zhihui. She had a deficit of 7kg to overcome — a gap she had conceded after the conclusion of the snatch segment.
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That gap was impossible to bridge, we all knew. None better than Mirabai, who went for 117kg when her personal best (a world record no less) is 119kg in the clean and jerk that followed. Now, there were questions around that why the Indian — who had sealed the silver, did not go for 123kg to give the Chinese a scare, a last-ditch gambit in a chess game with rubberised weights as pawns.
We can be excused for being demanding all of a sudden because that’s what Mirabai represents — a former world champion, a world record holder, and a genuine gold medal prospect. The word genuine — the key operative here — is not in place thanks to larger-than-life expectations woven by some official, minister or agency. It is laced in realism, and forged in a way only a weightlifter could. Diminutively built, Mirabai’s persona is now so big in stature that it puts to shame the PR that goes into hyping and building an Indian athlete these days. Mirabai Chanu happened to be the least PR-ed medal contender, and now medal winner, for India at the Games.
Well, on Saturday, she did all of it on her own.
The dynamics in a weightlifting competition is pretty intricate and cerebral, unlike the popular notion that the sport is completely driven by brawn. The snatch involves a technique that is a perfect balance of physics, physiology and dance. However, the biggest difference between a medal and lifting for academic interest is the selection of the right weight to go for in the first attempt. The increments, which happen later, would obviously be planned based on the personal best of the lifter. But that remains open ended too and a wee bit reactionary. After all, the lifter has to react to others in the mix.
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This is the real game in weightlifting — the one that goes on in the green room, away from the camera angles. It is math. It is chess as well.
In the snatch segment, Mirabai’s weak link, the Indian ended a kilogram less than her personal best. She cleared 87kg in the second attempt and failed at 89 in the third. The 89kg she attempted was, of course, reactionary. She had to attempt to reel in the Chinese lifter who was set to lift higher at that point. Zhihui ended the snatch with a lift of 94kg, and that more-or-less sealed her gold, pending a legal lift in the clean and jerk.
“That gap was too much to overcome,” says Pal Singh Sandhu, former national coach, and the man in the green room when Karnam Malleswari won bronze at Sydney 2000. Sandhu knows the difficulty in choosing the weight when so much is at stake. The wrong decision, one that was made in Sydney — an increment of 7kg instead of something lesser, cost Malleswari a silver or a possible gold, he admits, while praising Mirabai’s coaching staff for being on the game and not letting the opposition’s moves distract from the Indian’s plan.
“The strategy was perfect. There was no way Mirabai could catch the Chinese woman. She had to, however, clear an untouchable weight to consolidate her silver. She did that in the opening attempt of the clean and jerk, and from then on, the increment was what I would say based on real scientific thought.”
The plan for clean and jerk is basically a repeat of snatch. The difference is that the opening lift is mostly based on the numbers on the board posted by the opposition. The strategy has to be floating since by then everyone would know where they stand as far as the medal race is concerned.
Then again, keeping it floating has its pitfalls and that’s where Mirabai and the think tank behind her came out on top. “They never swerved away from the plan,” adds Sandhu. “And, increasing the weight by more than five in women’s lifting is not just foolishness, it is suicidal. All the more difficult in lower weight divisions. Her career would have been jeopardized if she picked up an injury in a futile attempt to chase the Chinese.”
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Sandhu has a valid point here. After the third lift, both Zhihui and Mirabai were seen holding their backs while walking out. They may have stretched themselves beyond the threshold of pain. But post the adrenalin, the receptors start conveying the signals that those muscle strands and joints have been stretched a wee bit more than usual. A seven kilogram chase would have snapped some fibres. Also, let us not forget that the next Olympics is not four but three years away, and Mirabai, given the confidence she has gained from Tokyo, and her form and potential, could go one better in Paris. Winning, after all, is a habit.
Despite all those thoughts, in the final moments of the competition in the clean and jerk, Mirabai did heave for a new Olympic record. Her failed lift of 117kg would have earned her a new mark which was established just seconds before by Zhihui with a final lift of 116kg. It was not to be.
For the record, the math and hard numbers show Zhihui miles ahead of the rest, and a notch above Mirabai. She won gold with a total score of 210 kg — also a new Olympic record. Mirabai ended with a total of 202kg. An effort of 194kg (84kg, 110kg) earned Aisah Windy Cantika of Indonesia the bronze medal.
Mirabai, 26, with the medal, not just vindicated her quality with an Olympic seal, but also banished her forgettable outing in Rio where she failed to post a legal lift in clean and jerk. The turnaround is perfection personified. It also indicates the mettle, or rather metal, with which Saikhom Mirabai Chanu has forged herself. Five years since Rio, she is a world record holder in the very segment which failed her in Brazil. She is an Olympic medalist, and part of a small and very exclusive club in India. And she has opened India’s account in Tokyo.
Her lift at the competition venue has elevated the Indian spirits at the quarantine facility that is the Games village. Now, that is an Olympic record that would stand the test of time.
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