One of the great things about this edition of the Commonwealth Games (CWG) is that we get the opportunity to watch our Olympic medallists from Tokyo perform on the big stage within the span of a year.
This is usually not the case. The disruption caused by the pandemic squeezed big events together. The Tokyo Olympics was postponed by a year to 2021, and the CWG and the Asian Games were scheduled within a month of each other less than a year after Tokyo (then in another Covid-19 twist, the Asian Games got postponed to 2023).
It was a common joke among athletes returning from Tokyo that after a year of no competition, they would have to live with two years of packed competitions unprecedented in their frequency, and before they knew it, Paris 2024 would be upon them.
Tricky for the athletes, but for those of us in India who usually get to see things like athletics, swimming, wrestling or boxing only once every two years when one of the major multi-sport events comes up, this is a wonderful chance to immerse ourselves in sports other than cricket.
The Tokyo Olympics began in an unlikely, joyous fashion for Indian fans. On the very first day of competition, Mirabai Chanu, unheralded outside of weightlifting circles, put in a stunning performance to win a silver.
At the CWG, the diminutive Manipuri with an infectious smile is the defending champion. She has little competition. Her personal best in the women’s 49kg is 207kg—second only to the world record holder, China’s Hou Zhihui (213kg). In fact, Chanu holds the world mark in the Clean & Jerk—119kg—but Hou pips her in Snatch (96kg to Chanu’s 87). Olympic weightlifting consists these two lifts, and athletes get three chances at each lift in the competition, where the best of each lift is combined for the total. At Birmingham, the next best after Chanu, Nigeria’s Stella Kingsley, has a combined personal best that’s 39kgs lighter.
“CWG is easy for me,” Chanu told reporters before leaving for Birmingham. “I will be competing with myself, but I will be trying to push the limits and improve on both my lifts.”
She went to Tokyo quietly, under the radar, but the medal itself came as no surprise in weightlifting circles. After all, Chanu had become the world champion in 2017, setting what was then a competition record. She had improved on that record in the 2018 Gold Coast CWG—she needn’t have, the silver medal went to a lift 26kg lighter. She means it when she says she will be competing with herself and pushing her limits at Birmingham.
Chanu’s streak of world-class lifts began with the kind of disappointment that can break careers. At her maiden appearance at the Olympics, Rio 2016, she failed to clear five of her allotted six lifts. It left her dejected and depressed, with thoughts of quitting the sport.
“I locked myself in a room and cried for five days I think,” Chanu said. Her grief was broken only when she returned home and realized that her parents were not at all concerned by her failure. They brushed it off. Her mother asked her what the next big competition is. “The world championship next year,” Chanu told her. “So you’ll do well in that, what’s the problem?” her mother replied.
Chanu began working not only on her body and lifting skills, but also her mental approach, slowly finding her comfort zone, the space where she does not get bogged down by the pressure of the big stage. At the 2017 World Championships, the 2018 CWG and the Tokyo Olympics, she did not miss a single lift, a remarkable feat at that level, where failing at least a couple of attempts is the norm.
“I am much more confident now, I don’t get stressed,” Chanu said. “I am mostly happy and I think I will do my best, the rest is up to god.”
On that note, she has been working tirelessly on her snatch since Tokyo, and since a chronic back injury was finally left behind after months of rehab in the US before the Olympics. Post Tokyo, with the CWG a year away, Chanu had a long period in which she could concentrate on making changes to her technique, and she did just that. She worked on aligning her toes, shoulders and back while performing the explosive phase of the lift, in which the bar is lifted from the floor to above the lifter’s head in one motion and where the tiniest difference in alignment can make a huge change in how much weight you can lift.One thing she will not change: Chanu will take the stage at CWG wearing earrings shaped like the Olympic logo, which her mother got made by melting down her own gold jewellery, as a good luck charm for Tokyo. And yes, a big smile.