A dodgy hip, the intricacies of Olympic qualification and a focus on more important tournaments later in the year saw Olympic silver medallist and former weightlifting world champion Mirabai Chanu start her 2023 season on a decidedly modest note, finishing sixth at the Asian Weightlifting Championships in Jinju, South Korea on Friday.
The 28-year-old only made two successful lifts in the women’s 49kg category -- a snatch of 85kg, and a clean and jerk of 109kg for a total of 194kg. While Mirabai failed two attempts at lifting 88kg in the snatch competition, she withdrew from the competition after making a single clean and jerk lift. The last time the Indian competed at the Asian Championships -- in 2020 at Tashkent-- she finished with a national record total of 205kg including a world record 119kg in the clean and jerk.
Mirabai’s total was 13 kg shy of the gold medal in the competition which went to China’s 2022 World Champion Jiang Huihua who lifted a total of 207kg. 2020 Olympic Champion Hou Zhihui, also of China, finished second with a total of 204kg. While China’s lifters had always been the target for Mirabai, she was left behind by three weightlifters she had never lost to previously. Thai wieghtlifters Surodchana Khambao and Thanyathon Sukcharoen took third and fourth place, respectively with totals of 200kg while Japan’s Rira Suzuki (194kg) finished ahead of Mirabai by virtue of competing earlier in the day.
Of the 11 competitions Mirabai has competed in since she switched to the women’s 49kg category in January 2019, there had been only two other tournaments – the 2019 Egat Cup and the 2022 Singapore International competition where the Indian had put up a worse total.
While the result might have been disappointing, Mirabai’s coaches aren’t too worried. “Ahead of the competition we had wanted to make a snatch of 90kg in competition. But before the competition, we felt that there was a problem with Mirabai’s left hip joint. Jhuk ke lift kar rahi thi us side se (she was leaning a bit more on that side when she was lifting). The problem could get worse because you have to sit very deep with the bar in both the snatch and clean and jerk. If she lifted too heavy – there was the potential of an injury. Right now, we are in the Olympic qualification stage and this is only the first competition of the season so we have to be very careful when we attempt these weights,” says national coach Vijay Sharma.
The chance of an injury was particularly high in the clean and jerk event where Mirabai holds the world record of 119kg. “We just wanted to make a single lift in the clean and jerk so that we put up a total in the competition,” says Sharma.
Mirabai had to register a total because of the qualification pathway to the Paris Olympic Games. In order to qualify for the 2024 Olympics, it is mandatory for weightlifters to compete in the 2023 World Championships and 2024 Weightlifting World Cup. They also have to compete in three additional tournaments out of a possible five – 2022 World championships, continental championships and two weightlifting Grand Prix tournaments – that are listed by the International weightlifting Federation.
By competing at the 2023 Asian Championships, Mirabai, who has already competed in the 2022 World Championships, only needs to compete in one other tournaments out of those listed by the IWF (Apart from the 2023 World championships and 2024 World Cup)
Mirabai’s relatively modest total at the Asian Championships also shouldn’t cost her since only her best total from the tournaments she must compete will serve as a qualification for the Paris Olympics. Mirabai is currently ranked second in the qualification rankings for the Paris Games (top 10 ranked weightlifters will qualify) with a total of 200kg lifted at the 2022 World Championships.
Indeed, Sharma says Mirabai’s goal for the year will be the Asian Games. “The Asian Games are the only major competition where Mirabai doesn’t have a medal (She finished ninth the only time she competed in 2014). The Asian Games are the priority for Mirabai this year. Even the world championships are happening around the same time (World Championships are being held from September 2-17 and the Asian Games are being held between the 10th and 25th of the same month). We will only go to the world championships to register a total. We already have a total of 200kg from the 2022 World Championships which should be good enough to qualify for the Paris Games,” he says.
While that weight might be good enough to qualify for Paris, the expectation will be that Mirabai can still do more. Mirabai’s first snatch at the Asian Championships was 85kg which is the highest she has ever lifted on her first attempt at an international event (She had also started with a lift of 85kg at the 2020 Nationals). “We missed our attempts at 88kg but Mirabai has successfully lifted that weight in the past – at the 2022 Commonwealth Games. We think she can do more. We didn’t make that lift today because of her hip but I think we are in much better condition this season than we were last year,” says Sharma.
Mirabai will have to be in a better condition. While Huihua and Zhihui were always the targets she was chasing, Khambao and Sukcharoen have now displayed the ability to go past the Indian. Khambao, a former champion in an admittedly depleted field at the 2021 worlds, could prove a serious threat in the next year. Only 23 years old, Khambao still has room to improve. Mirabai’s strength has always been the clean and jerk segment in which she catches up with athletes who outperform her in the snatch event – the Indian was in fifth place after the snatch at the 2022 Worlds but finished second overall after the clean and jerk. At the Asian Championships, Khambao made a successful lift of 110kg in just her first attempt in the clean and jerk and will feel she can put even more weight on the bar in the competitions to come.
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