In what was a foregone conclusion ever since she was named in the Indian squad for the Commonwealth Games, weightlifter Mirabai Chanu won gold in the women’s 49kg class in Birmingham on Saturday. The Tokyo Olympics silver medallist finished with a total of 201kg (88kg in the snatch and 113kg in the clean and jerk), 29kg clear of silver medal winner, Marie Hanitra of Mauritius.
It was 1 hour and 2 minutes from the time the competition started before Mirabai walked up to the weightlifting platform in Birmingham. As her 10 rivals strained and struggled for their best performances, and fight for silver and bronze, the Indian stayed in the warm-up hall, simply warming up. The Indian was in an entirely different competition, one with herself. When she finally came out for her first lift, the others had finished their attempts.
Within 30 seconds, she was 8kg clear of the field with an opening snatch of 84kg. About 90 seconds later, the gap increased to 12kg after she cleared 88kg in her second attempt. This equalled her national record and set a new Commonwealth record. For her last snatch lift, the 27-year-old got the bar loaded at 90kg, a mark she has been chasing for a couple of years.
“She’s in a league of her own. She’s pushing her boundaries,” the TV commentators cried out in amazement.
A little explainer here. There are two sections of a weightlifting competition — the snatch followed by the clean and jerk. In the clean and jerk, competitors lift the bar off the floor and hoist it explosively to receive it on the shoulders. In the second phase of the movement, the lifter pushes the bar overhead. This lift relies a lot on pure strength, which, coupled with a sound technique, helps the overall performance. This is the lift in which Mirabai, the world record holder with 119kg, excels.
The snatch movement, in contrast, requires lifters to lift the bar overhead in one motion. It’s generally done with a wider grip (because of demands of the lift) than the clean and jerk, and faults in technique will expose an athlete. No weightlifter can brute force elite numbers in the snatch with faulty technique. Also, clean and jerk numbers will invariably be higher than those registered in the snatch.
The snatch is the one in which Mirabai usually gives up ground. Mirabai’s numbers in this are still world class but still a bit short of what she would need to challenge for gold at the world level.
And that was the intent behind Mirabai’s third snatch lift in Birmingham. It was her first step towards the top of the podium in Paris Olympics in 2024. China's Hou Zhihui, who won gold in the Tokyo Olympics, lifted 94kg in the snatch in that competition, while Mirabai registered 87kg. While Mirabai can bridge the gap somewhat with her powerful clean and jerk, a 7kg difference at the absolute elite in world weightlifting is pretty close to insurmountable.
Mirabai knows she needs to improve her snatch lift. “When I did the (clean and jerk) world record (of 119kg) at the Asian Championships (in April 2021), I thought I had a lot of confidence that I could fight for the gold. But the Chinese girl is much stronger in the snatch. She has the (world) record (96kg) in that. I knew I could fight her in the clean and jerk. At the Olympics, I thought I would be able to get close but couldn’t. That motivates me a lot even now. With a snatch of over 90kg, I would have challenged for the Olympic gold,” Mirabai had told Sportstar a few months ago.
That’s why Mirabai’s target at Birmingham wasn’t just a gold. “The Commonwealth Games isn’t just a competition for me. It’s also a preparation for what follows. After the CWG, I’ll have to start preparing for the Olympic qualification period,” she had said. “My goal at the CWG will be to cross 90kg in the snatch. In this Commonwealth Games, I’ll know what I’ve learned and where I need to improve,” she had said.
Mirabai has attempted the 90kg snatch in competition twice before. She never came close to making the lift the first time at the 2020 national championships. She attempted the lift at the national ranking championships in Himachal Pradesh in June. Mirabai never even got the bar clean into the groove over her head, letting it fall in front of her – the surest sign she wasn’t sure she could control the weight.
At Birmingham though, Mirabai came close. Mighty close. The speed was there as she pulled the bar up to her chest, and as she ducked under the rod, it seemed as if she had it. And then, just as it seemed she finally got the bar where she wanted, it rolled forward. The Indian tried to fight and control the bar, but at this weight, the margins for error are minute.
As the bar came crashing down, the crowd sighed collectively. It wasn’t the disappointment of a weightlifter missing out on a medal – that was never in question for Mirabai. This was more a sigh of acknowledgement that a world-class lifter nearly had a targeted weight in her grasp.
After the failed 90kg attempt, the Indian would pat the bar as if it was a child that had behaved badly, smile and wave to the crowd. She has another couple of years to get that 90kg lift, and possibly more, under her belt. Judging by her performance at Birmingham, she’s definitely getting close.
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