The Mirabai Chanu story: Rise and shine at Tokyo 2020 after Rio Olympics heartbreak

The Indian weightlifter once thought of quitting after a dismal showing at Rio 2016 but the Tokyo Olympics gave Mirabai Chanu’s career a fresh lift. 

By Ali Asgar Nalwala
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

Ever since winning a silver at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Mirabai Chanu has become one of India’s most loved sporting heroes.

Born on August 8, 1994, the weightlifter from Manipur notched up a combined lift of 202 kg (87 kg snatch; 115 kg clean and jerk) to claim the coveted podium in the women’s 49 kg category. 

Mirabai Chanu’s path to becoming India’s first weightlifter to win a silver medal at the Olympics was, however, anything but easy. Especially after her debut Summer Games at Rio 2016, where she failed to register a single valid lift in clean and jerk.

“I was really low after the Olympics (Rio 2016),” Mirabai Chanu had said about her disastrous campaign. 

Before Rio 2016, Mirabai Chanu was considered one of India’s best medal prospects for the Summer Games after a series of impressive performances.

At the national selection trials for the Rio Olympics, Mirabai Chanu had broken the 12-year-old national record set by weightlifter Kunjarani Devi at the Athens 2004 Olympics by lifting 85 kg-snatch and 107 kg-clean and jerk for a total of 192 kg.

For the record, North Korea’s Ryang Chun Hwa, competing in the women’s 48 kg, lifted 192 kg at the London 2012 Olympics to clinch the bronze medal.

After her dreams came crashing down at Rio, Mirabai was subjected to intense criticism back home, which almost broke her.

“It took me a lot of time to get over the disappointment. I even thought of giving up the sport and stop training. The comments on social media, and the criticism against my coach really hurt me.” Mirabai Chanu said.

Redemption at Tokyo

Mirabai Chanu, however, persevered and turned her heartbreak at Rio 2016 into a story of redemption at Tokyo.

In 2017, Mirabai Chanu exorcised the ghosts of Rio 2016 by becoming only the second Indian weightlifter after Karnam Malleswari (1994 and 1995) to win a gold medal at the World Weightlifting Championships in 2017.

Mirabai Chanu lifted a total of 194 kg (85 kg snatch; 109 kg clean and jerk) to break her own national record and clinch the gold medal at the world championships held in the USA. 

Despite going through back problems in 2018 and skipping Asian Games that year, Mirabai Chanu stayed positive and won the gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in 2018. 

The Manipuri weightlifter continued her purple patch from thereon. 

Mirabai Chanu, who had won Commonwealth championships in 2013 and 2017, lifted the title for the third time in 2019. 

Although COVID disrupted most international events over the next two years, Mirabai Chanu continued to train smartly and timed her peak well in the Olympic year of 2021. 

Mirabai Chanu won the bronze medal at the delayed Asian Championships to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. While it was a third-place finish at the continental meet, Mirabai Chanu became a significant medal contender for the Olympics with a world record 119 kg-clean and jerk lift in the 49 kg weight division.

Mirabai Chanu at Tokyo Olympics

At the Tokyo Olympics, Mirabai Chanu, much like Rio 2016, once again shouldered India’s medal hopes and this time, she delivered at the biggest stage.

Mirabai Chanu got a boost heading into the Tokyo Games after the withdrawal of North Korea from the Olympics due to COVID. Mirabai Chanu had missed out on a medal at the World Weightlifting Championships 2019 after being beaten to the bronze medal by North Korean lifter Ri Song Gum.

Heading into Tokyo 2020, the top-two ranked weightlifters in the 49 kg category were both Chinese. But with the Olympic rules allowing only one lifter from a country in a particular weight category, Chanu’s medal chances improved even further.

At the Tokyo Olympics, Mirabai Chanu began with an 84 kg lift in snatch and bettered it to 87 kg. However, Mirabai Chanu’s mark was breached by eventual champion Hou Zhihui of China, who registered 94 kg to set a new Olympic record in the snatch. Mirabai Chanu tried for 89 kg in her final attempt but failed.

In the clean and jerk round, Mirabai Chanu started with a 110 kg lift before improving it to 115 kg in the second try. Hou Zhihui, however, came out on top again and logged 116 kg in clean and jerk to finish with an overall Olympic record lift of 210 kg in the category.

Chanu failed with her final attempt of 117 kg but even a successful lift would have seen her finish behind Zhihui on the podium.  

Indonesia’s Aisah Windy Cantika took the bronze in the 49 kg category with an 84kg-snatch and 110 kg-clean and jerk for a total of 194 kg.

"I made my debut in Rio. I could not win there though I trained hard as I did for Tokyo. I got blank and nervous,” Mirabai Chanu told PTI at an event after the Tokyo Olympics. “I could do this (win a medal in Tokyo) with proper planning, training, and technique.”

It was India’s second weightlifting medal at the Olympics after Karnam Malleswari’s bronze medal at Sydney Games in 2000 and the only second silver medal by an Indian woman across sports after badminton player PV Sindhu’s silver in Rio 2016.

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