Here comes weightlifter Saikhom Mirabai Chanu. She is among the new breed of sportspersons from a tiny state, Manipur, which has a population less than three million.
Chanu is the world champion in the 48 kilogram category, only the second Indian woman to win a gold medal at the worlds after Karnam Malleswari who won not once but twice, in 1994 in Turkey and in China in 1995.
Women’s weightlifting was introduced at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and Malleswari became the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal when she snatched the bronze.
Malleswari winning a medal in the 54 kg category was no news, the surprise was that she could only get the bronze. The expectations of her winning the gold were high as she entered the event as two-time world champion. In her illustrious career, the woman from Andhra Pradesh won 29 international medals, 11 of them golds.
Seeing Chanu’s triumphant smile, the commentators at the Anaheim Convention Center in California were as ecstatic as she and the Indian camp were. One of them said “she would go home and get rockstar status” and the other chimed in: “She better, she earned it.” Yes, she should.
The 1.5-metre pocket dynamo knew she was sure of getting silver after her final lift of 109 in clean and jerk because the other gilr in contention for the gold was Thailand’s Sukcharoen Thunya, the reigning Asian and junior world champion.
Mirabai did her customary Namaste and left the arena pleased with her what she thought her silver performance. An admirer of seven-time world silver mediallist Kunjarani Devi, Chanu knew if Sukcharoen successfully lifted 109 kg, she would have settle for the silver, having lifted a kilo less than the Thai in snatch.
Sukcharoen, also all good Thais, folded her hands together after she failed to lift 109 kg and silver changed to gold in the hands of the Indian.
Mirabai Chanu is doubly thrilled as the gold has erased the memories of a disastrous Rio Olympics where she had failed to even lift her entry weight of 104kg in clean and jerk to end her 48kg category event as DNF (Did Not Finish).
Weightlifting in India has had a roller coaster ride. From the decades of honest triers in the later half of the 1990s to the disgraced in the new millennium, and now back in the arena, it has seen it all and it is all women.
Ironically, Indian weightlifting received a big setback when three women lifters were punished for doping at international events in one year.
India’s record in doping had been shocking as one-fourth of some 800 athletes banned by the National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA) have been weightlifters, leading to the national federation being banned by the international body for three years between 2004 and 2009.
Slowly things started to get better and better in the second decade with Indians getting on the podium again.
Mirabai’s excellent showing surely will lif the iron men and women of the country. If someone points to the absence of the tainted biggies from Russia, Ukraine, Kzakhstan, Ajerbaijan, China, Turkey to devalue the performances at Ahaheim, it is no fault of the clean and hard-working athletes.
The International Federation decided to ban any country that had three positive tests after retesting of the samples by the International Olympic Committee in the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games.
As the commentators said, Mirabai Chanu will be hailed as another gret woman athlete of the country. Her name will be taken in the same breath along with tennis star Sania Mirza, badminton stalwarts Saina Nehwal, Pusarla Venkata Sindhu, wrestler Sakshi Malik and gymnast Dipa Karmakar.
Mirabai Chanu has certainly infused a new life into the sport and will inspire many more from Manipur and North-East to dominate the sporting scene of the country.
By Veturi Srivatsa