Mirabai Chanu lays down conservative show in World Cup with eye on Paris Olympics

Mirabai Chanu
Mirabai Chanu (Source: Mirabai Chanu Twitter)

India’s top weightlifter Mirabai Chanu on Monday ensured she will complete a hat-trick of Olympic Games appearances when she heads to Paris 2024. She had contrasting campaigns in Rio de Janeiro 2016 and Tokyo 2020. And, more than anyone else, she will know that she has work to be done if she has to bridge the gap between promise of being a repeat medalist and performance.

On Monday, she had total lifts of 184kg in the IWF 2024 World Cup in Phuket, Thailand. Ostensibly, it is her lowest in more than eight years since she compiled 183kg in the 2015 IWF World Championships in Houston, United States of America. But the sighs of relief heaved by the sporting community in India were as audible as the ‘Dhoni-Dhoni’ cries that rent IPL grounds.

Returning from a long spell of injury and rehabilitation, she did not over-reach in her bid to find personal bests, let alone a podium finish. The conservative approach was a sign of mature thinking aimed at preventing a recurrence of injury. However, the road ahead will be challenging if her dream of being the first Indian weightlifter to win medals in successive Olympic Games is to come true.

Though the Olympic qualification period ends on April 28, the World Cup was the last IWF-listed competition. And, with the International Olympic Committee and IWF stipulating that each weight category will feature only 12 lifters, Mirabai Chanu will retain her second place on the Paris 2024 Olympic Qualification Ranking (OQR) in the women’s 49kg class.

Before we consider her chances, it would be fair to look at her performances in competitions since winning the Tokyo Olympic Games silver medal. A year after giving India’s campaign a good start in Tokyo, she won the Commonwealth Games gold with a personal best total of 201kg (88kg and 113kg). But that performance did not count in the OQR.

The second place with 200kg in the 2022 IWF World Championships in Bogota, Colombia, is what has placed her so high on the OQR. It also meant that she could take her foot off the pedal while keeping an eye on how rivals were doing. She finished sixth with 194kg in the Asian Championships in Jinju, South Korea) in May 2023.

Mirabai Chanu
Mirabai Chanu (PC: X)

She entered the 2023 IWF World Championships in Riyadh in early September but only showed up at the weighing in and did not lift at all. Later that month, perhaps rushed into competition at the Asian Games in Hangzhou, she ended up fourth with a total of 191kg, suggesting that she had felt a thigh pain during her warm-up. The Asian Games competition was also not an OQR event.

Like she did in Riyadh, Mirabai Chanu showed up only at weigh-in at the IWF Grand Prix #2 in Doha in December last and skipped the Asian Championships, focusing on completing her recovery and the tough rehabilitation process, including a month with Dr. Aaron Horschig at the Squat University in St. Louis, United States, thanks to Government support.

Despite holding the clean and jerk and total world records, Asian Games gold medalist North Korea’s Ri Son-Gum joined the race for Olympic qualification rather late in the day. She did not compete in the 2023 IWF World Championships in Riyadh, thus not meeting one of the criteria laid down for Olympic qualification.

With either Chinese having career best totals that are at least 15kg more than the others in the field, the contest would appear to be only for the flanks on the podium. At the moment, the OQR places Mirabai Chanua ahead of Thailand’s Surodchana Khambao (or her compatriot Thanyathon Sukcharoen) and United States’ Jourdan Elizabeth Delacruz each of who has a best of 200kg.

Then, Romania’s Mihaela-Valentina Cambei (199kg), Japan’s Rira Suzuki (197kg) are not too far behind that bunch on the OQR, suggesting that the 49kg competition in August in Paris would be fascinating battle of strength, physical and mental. And the four months between now and the day of the competition will have to see Mirabai Chanu return to lifting a total around her personal best.

The Indian will possibly go in with the second place in the 49kg class OQR behind a Chinese lifter. Zhihui Hou could end up being ranked higher than her compatriot, world champion Huihua Jiang. But her support system has four months in which to get back to peak competitive fitness so that she is in medal contention in Paris 2024.

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