As the Olympics draw closer, many of us dig deep into an athlete’s competitive history. We look at their highs and their lows and the lessons that those victories and defeats might have taught them.

It is the same for Saikhom Mirabai Chanu as well.

As a 21-year-old, she had gone to Rio 2016 after breaking N Kunjarani Devi’s record of lifting a total weight of 190kg with a combined lift of 192kg. Most observers expected her to put up a creditable performance. But instead, something went wrong; something went very wrong.

In a field of 12 lifters on the women’s 48kg category, she ended up as one of two lifters who did not finish her event.

Mirabai failed to lift 104kg in her first attempt in clean and jerk, followed by two more attempts to pick up 106kg. In her second and third attempts, the Indian simply couldn’t lift the weight which was below her then personal best of 107 kg.

In fact out of six chances – three in snatch and three in clean and jerk – Mirabai got only one successful lift. The pressure of the first Olympic Games proved to be an issue, she would later realise.

But as she gets ready to strut her stuff in Tokyo, Rio seems like a long-forgotten memory; perhaps even a memory from a different life. She is a weightlifter reborn.

Mirabai Chanu: Carrying the weight of expectations ahead of Tokyo Olympics with a sense of calm

In 2017, she created history at the World Weightlifting Championships held in Anaheim, United States when she became only the second Indian in 22 years to clinch a gold at the World Weightlifting Championships after legendary weightlifter, Karnam Malleswari.

Malleswari had achieved this feat twice, in 1994 in Turkey, and in China in 1995.

In 2018, Chanu lifted a total of 196 kg, 86 kg in snatch and 110 kg in clean and jerk to win the first gold medal for India in the Commonwealth Games 2018. She also broke the record for the weight category.

In 2019, at the Asian Weightlifting Championships, she won bronze in clean and jerk in the 49 kg Category. The total weight of 199 kg was her best then.

In 2021, she went past the 200 kg barrier at the Asian Championships.

With every passing year, she is lifting heavier weights, the clean and jerk has been transformed into one of her strengths and her confidence is sky-high. Now, she’s aiming for the very top.

“I don’t want a silver in the Olympics, I want gold,” she had declared in April this year.

Women 49 Kg - IWF Rankings

Rank Name Nation B.weight Snatch Cl&Jerk Total
1 HOU Zhihui CHN 48.70 96 117 213
2 JIANG Huihua CHN 48.70 89 118 207
3 MIRABAI Chanu Saikhom IND 48.90 86 119 205
4 DELACRUZ Jourdan Elizabeth USA 48.95 89 111 200
5 AISAH Windy Cantika INA 48.55 86 105 191
6 CSENGERI Monica-Suneta ROU 48.78 86 103 189
REICHARDT Hayley Marie USA 48.93 82 107 189
8 CAMBEI Mihaela-Valentina ROU 48.35 86 99 185
9 SOBOL Kristina Ivanovna RUS 48.80 85 96 181
10 BERRIO ZULUAGA Manuela Andrea COL 48.84 79 101 180
via IWF

Mirabai Chanu's recent results

Event Rank Category Body wt. Snatch C&J Total
2021 Asian C'ships 3 49 kg 48.90 86 119 205
2019 6th Qatar International Cup 1 49 kg 48.90 83 111 194
2019 IWF Worlds 4 49 kg 49.00 87 114 201
2019 Commonwealth C'ships 1 49 kg 48.85 84 107 191
2019 Asian C'ships 4 49 kg 48.98 86 113 199
2019 EGAT's Cup 1 49 kg 49.00 82 110 192
2018 CWG 1 48 kg 47.91 86 110 196
2017 IWF Worlds 1 48 kg 47.98 85 109 194
2017 Commonwealth C'ships 1 48 kg 47.87 85 104 189
2016 Rio 2016 --- 48 kg 47.77 82 --- 0
via IWF


Sat, 24 Jul, 6:20 IST: Women’s 49kg Group B
Sat, 24 Jul, 10:20 IST: Women’s 49kg Group A (medal event)  

UPDATE: Start list for women's 49kg Group B

Update via PTI: 

“Our competitors are the lifters from China, USA and Indonesia. We have worked on snatch. But the weights will be decided based on what the others are doing. We don’t want to take unnecessary risks,” national coach Vijay Sharma told PTI from Tokyo.

“At the Asian Championship we had the freedom to experiment but the Olympics comes once in four years, the strategy will be different,” he added.

Interestingly, Chanu has set the highest entry weight of 210kg, which is five kilograms more than her personal best, followed by Zhihui (205kg), who had lifted 213kg (96g+117kg) at the Asian championship. Cantika and Elizabeth have entered 203kg and 200kg respectively, while the other four lifters in the fray have set entries below the 200kg mark. 

With world record holders Chanu (clean and jerk) and Zhihui (snatch and total) vying for supremacy at the Tokyo International Forum’s weightlifting arena, new world marks are on the cards.

In 2018, Chanu was laid low by a lower back injury that kept her out of competition for eight months but she showed she was getting back to her best by claiming the gold at the EGAT Cup in Thailand in 2019. It was her first medal after the injury.

Recently, at the Asian Championships, she established a new world record in clean and jerk in the women’s 49kg category. She successfully heaved 119kg in her last tournament ahead of the Tokyo Games and that helped her win a bronze medal but the big differentiator at the Games could be her performance in the snatch section.

Her best in snatch is 86 kgs and that is way below the top two Chinese competitors. Zhihui Hou, world no 1, has managed to lift 96 kgs in snatch and Huihua Jiang, world no 2, has a successful lift of 89 kgs. Both the Chinese lifters also weigh less than Chanu.

But that still means that Chanu has a very good chance of getting onto the podium. The absence of another top lifter, Song Gum Ri, due to the withdrawal of North Korea also helps.

While Hou is the clear favourite in the event, some inspired lifting could see the 26-year-old become the first India lifter since Malleswari to win a medal at the Olympics. It has been a long wait and one she will be keen to end.

Chanu has reached Tokyo after undergoing a 50-day training stint in St Louis, USA and this time, the weight of expectations is very different. She isn’t expected to just compete; she is expected to triumph and she knows that too.

“A lot has changed since Rio. I have changed my training method, worked on my technique. In clean and jerk, we have identified what part we need to work on and strengthened that body part and movement,” she had said in an interaction set up by Sports Authority of India recently.

“Mentally, I try not to take too much pressure on myself before competitions now, of course that doesn’t mean it isn’t there but I tell myself that I have to do just what I do in training daily… We shouldn’t treat the competition as different from training.”

If she can match her best, she should find herself on the podium. That understanding can either pull you down or inspire you to go one step further. Either way, it is showtime and there’s some heavy lifting to be done. As the sole weightlifter from India in Tokyo, she carries the expectations of the nation. Wiser from Rio 2016 experience, she has a bright chance.

(With PTI inputs)