Celebrating Commonwealth Games victories, but building a sports culture takes more work
Weightlifter Mirabai Chanu, who won gold in the 49kg category at the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games, rightly said her competition was with herself. And as she pointed out, not so subtly, that feat shouldn’t be enough. Lifting 29 kg more than the second ranked lifter shows that the level of competition is low.
The real test for India will come at the Asian Games and then at the World Wrestling Championship and the Olympics. Our athletes know this and I believe that our level continues to improve.
Jeremy Lalrinnunga, Achinta Sheuli and Chanu have shown just a glimpse of the improvement in Indian weightlifting in recent times. Most Indian weightlifters come from lower middle class families. Their thirst for success is immense. They are deeply sincere when it comes to their training and just as humble when winning a medal.
In terms of dedication and desire to succeed, not much has changed since I competed and won the bronze medal at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. What has changed tremendously is the support system that athletes receive these days. Chanu can think of competing at the highest level despite being injured for a good part of the year because nowadays our athletes have access to the best facilities and treatment. In our time, to recover from injuries, we were told to use hot wax, which was a common remedy. It was the same even when I won in Sydney.
Today the athletes have a team of physiotherapists, a masseuse and doctors who travel with the team. They have access to the best coaches, nutritionists, sports scientists and advisors whenever they need extra help. They are sent abroad to train. Before the competition, they are sent to the venue of the event whenever they wish if they wish to acclimatize to the conditions.
Credit must be given to the government first, then to the sports federations and private bodies for facilitating all of this. It shows that they are serious about the sport and not afraid to go the extra mile to support top athletes.
I say top athletes because I think to start dominating in elite competitions we need to start supporting athletes who have not yet won a national title because that is only once ‘they won the national title they have all the facilities.
What happens to those who miss by small margins? What about those who show a lot of potential and could claim a medal with the right training? Most of these athletes come from the interior of the country where the facilities they need have not been developed. We should look for ways to help them. Only then can we have a talent pool.
Having a pool of talent for each weight class is necessary if we want to become a world power in weightlifting. We should pull a leaf from China’s book. For each category, they have about 20 lifters, so even if the top athlete is injured, there is someone almost at the same level ready to replace him. Having 20 top lifters in a category also improves the level at which they perform because, above all, they compete with each other.
To have such a rich breeding ground, we need a large grassroots program. There has been a huge increase in interest in weightlifting in our country. I saw this firsthand recently when I wanted to hold tryouts for my academy in Haryana. All I did was post a message on Twitter giving details of the lawsuit. I had room for about 50 kids, but 700 showed up. And the best part is that parents are now encouraging their kids to get into weightlifting.
It is also very important to identify talent using the right methods at the grassroots level. Now we have scientific tests that are done on 11 year olds to find out if they are fit for weightlifting. From there, we get to know their flexibility, their potential height at age 20, and the degree of muscle development. This information is very important for identifying talent and centers in India have gradually started to carry out such tests.
I am also part of Delhi Sports University and we are trying to identify raw talents from small towns using these scientific tests. Sport will be an important part of their program, but it will not be the only aspect. Thirty percent of their program will also teach them other aspects of the sport. After all, besides athletes, we need good Indian coaches, sports physiotherapists, psychologists, nutritionists and trainers.
This year’s Commonwealth Games offer a feel-good factor and great motivation for the athletes, but they are only the first steps in building a sporting nation.
Malleswari is the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal. She won bronze in the 69kg weightlifting category in Sydney in 2000