Eleven months ago, Mirabai Chanu helped Indian weightlifting soar to a new high, winning a gold medal in the world championship. A new star was born, raising hopes of an Olympic glory in Tokyo. But a lower back injury halted her progress and after missing the Asian Games, she will also give the world championship, starting this week, a miss.
Hampered by injuries to several of their other top weightlifters, India are fielding a young team at this year’s World Championship in Ashgabat in Turkmenistan, the first of the qualifying tournaments for the 2020 Olympics. The competition from 1-10 November is also the first international event being held according to the new weight categories, introduced by the International Weightlifting Federation.
India’s challenge at this year’s world championship will be led by Rakhi Halder (64kg) and Jhilli Dalabehera (49kg) in women’s section while Ajay Singh (79 kg), Achinta Sheuli (74 kg) and Gurdeep Singh (over 109kg) will be in action in men’s events. Along with Mirabai, the prominent absentees in the showpiece event include Commonwealth Games gold medallists Sathish Sivalingam and Ragala Venkat Rahul, who are both out with injuries, while Sanjita Chanu is serving a ban for doping.
Indian hopes are pinned on Rakhi Halder who is taking part in the 64kg category. She announced her arrival on the big stage at this year’s national championship, eclipsing Karnam Malleshwari’s long-standing national record. This earned her a place in the Asian Games squad, but her campaign in Jakarta ended in a heartbreak. She failed to register a single lift in her three attempts in snatch. “The preparations were good. It was just not my day. I was taking part in an international event after a long time and I just had stage fright,’’ says Rakhi, looking to bounce back in the world championship.
The lifter from Bengal will be looking to overhaul her career-best total of 230 kg. “Going by her current form, Rakhi is in line for a berth in Tokyo but the new weight categories have made it difficult to make predictions. This is the first time she will be competing in 64kg and we are not sure what weight the other lifters will achieve," says India’s weightlifting coach Vijay Sharma.
Rakhi took to weightlifting as a 15-year-old, thanks to her daily routine of lifting heavy sacks of paddy every day. “When my mother saw I could lift them effortlessly, she suggested I should take up weightlifting. There were no facilities in my village so I had to walk nine kilometres every day to the nearby railway station and then board a train to Ranaghat, the nearest big town, which had a weightlifting centre," she said.
Endowed with natural strength, she worked on her technique and soon started winning medals at the junior state meets followed by medals at national tournaments, and her biggest achievement was the gold in the junior Commonwealth Championship in 2012. She has been in the national camp for the last couple of years and this will be her first appearance in the world championship.
In the men’s event, 21-year-old Ajay Singh will be looking to live up to his reputation as one of the brightest medal prospects from the country. In the Asian Games, he finished a creditable fifth, much ahead of the two-time Commonwealth Games gold medallist Sathish Shivalingam. Ajay will be competing in the 79kg category at Ashgabat.
“I am not worried with the change in my weight category. In fact, I was struggling with my body weight earlier as my natural body weight was around 80kg and I was forced to reduce weight before tournaments to make the cut in the 77kg," says the lifter from Rajasthan.
Starting his sporting career as a middle-distance runner, Ajay was asked by his coaches at the Army Sports Institute to try his hand in weightlifting. The transition was smooth and the youngster soon got noticed. He has won a number of medals in the Commonwealth Championships both in the junior and the senior categories. “The World Championships will be the biggest tournament I will be taking part in. Therefore I do not want to put any extra pressure on myself. I am just looking to improve my performance.”
In weightlifting, India have traditionally struggled in higher weight categories, but the emergence of Gurdeep Singh, who will be taking part in the over 109 kg, has raised hopes. The Punjab lifter finished fourth in the Commonwealth Games and is hopeful of a better showing.
Other two youngsters in the fray — Achinta Sheuli and Jhilli Dalabehera — are not starting as medal contenders but will use the platform to gain invaluable exposure competing against the very best in the world.
The rising stock of Indian junior weightlifters is evident with 15-year-old James Lalrinnunga winning a historic gold medal at the Youth Olympics. The lifter from Mizoram finished on top of the podium in the 62kg category. “With 62 kg category removed from the Olympics, we are looking at James to compete in the 67kg category. He will need some more time to prepare in this revised weight class. Therefore we have not picked him for the world championship,” says Sharma.
Along with the World Championship, points accumulated in different tournaments in lead up to the Olympics like the Asian Championship, Commonwealth Championship and the 2019 World Championship will also be considered for a berth in Tokyo.
“Despite missing the World Championship, Mirabai still has plenty of opportunities to make the cut for Tokyo Olympics. She is focussing on the Asian Championship in April next year for the ranking points," says coach Sharma. As per the new weight classification, Mirabai will compete in 49kg in all future tournaments as her earlier weight category of 48kg has been scrapped.
“We are happy with her current fitness and she has resumed training in Patiala. Venkat Rahul, who missed the Asian Games because of an injury, is also back. Only Sathish is still not fully fit and yet to join the national camp.”
After a fairytale run in the Commonwealth Games, where the Indian lifters won five gold medals, they returned empty-handed from the Asian Games. Hopefully, the youngsters will lift the gloom with some good performance in the world championship.
Updated Date: Oct 29, 2018 17:38:42 IST