Mirabai Chanu all but qualifies for Paris Olympics; finishes 11th in IWF World Cup

Mirabai Chanu won India's first ever weightlifting silver at the Tokyo Olympics. VINCENZO PINTO/AFP via Getty Images

Mirabai Chanu assured herself of a shot at a second Olympic medal as she became the only Indian weightlifter to qualify for the 2024 Paris Olympics on Monday (pending official ratification on April 11). The 29-year-old Olympic silver medallist finished third in Group B of the women's 49kg (and 11th overall) at the IWF World Cup to book her berth at the Paris Games.

How did Mirabai qualify for the Paris Olympics?

Making a comeback after a six-month injury-forced hiatus, Mirabai was far from her best as she registered a best lift of 81kgs in snatch followed by a successful attempt at 113kgs in clean and jerk to finish third with a total of 184kgs. For context: Mirabai had lifted 202kg (87kg in snatch + 115kg in clean and jerk) to win silver in Tokyo, while her personal best in snatch is 88kg, and 119kg in clean and jerk.

As per IWF qualification rules, lifters have to compete in the 2023 World Championships and the 2024 World Cup along with three more major events to be eligible for the Paris Olympics. Mirabai fulfilled the criteria as she competed at the 2022 Worlds, 2023 Asian Championships, the 2024 World Cup and registered herself for the 2023 Worlds and Grand Prix II - where she completed all the necessary formalities but did not compete. That made her eligible to qualify for the Paris Games and she is currently ranked #2 in the Olympic Qualification Rankings (OQR) [list updated on March 4, 2024].

The OQR ranks athletes based on their best performances in the qualifying period and at the end of Monday's World Cup, the top 10 lifters on the list will qualify for Paris. For Mirabai, she's ranked #2 owing to her performance at the 2022 Worlds, where she lifted a total of 200kg (87kg+113kg). However, her best total of 200kg was bested by Chinese lifters Jiang Huihua (216kg) and Hou Zhihui (217kg) and Ri Song Gum of North Korea (221kg - a world record). However with only one lifter per country competing at the Olympic Games and North Korea entering the qualification cycle too late, Mirabai will remain second in the OQR once it is updated post the World Cup (April 11).

Mirabai's injury-plagued path to Paris

Her return to competition caps off a nervy few months for Mirabai. The last time she competed was at the Asian Games in September 2023, when she had to be carried off the lifting platform after injuring her hip. Going into her final clean and jerk attempt, Mirabai needed to lift 117kg to leapfrog Thailand's Thanyathon Sukcharoen for the bronze medal. Unfortunately for Mirabai, it ended with her being unable to clear the lift and subsequently had to be carried away by coach Vijay Sharma.

Mirabai had spoken about how she felt pain in her thigh on the day of her event at the Asian Games but still went for it - a decision which at that time seemed to have dented her hopes of making it to Paris. Injuries have been a constant companion to the 29-year-old since her Olympic silver medal. Her biggest win post-Tokyo was the gold medal at the Commonwealth Games, but such was the level of competition that she was the outright favourite even before the event began. Since then, however, she has severely struggled for consistency.

She fought off what could have been a serious injury, when her wrist buckled mid-lift, to win silver at the 2022 World Championships. In 2023, she entered but decided against competing in the World Championships and competed in just two through the year: a disappointing fifth-place finish at the Asian Championships and a nasty injury to end her Asian Games campaign.

Mirabai, only the second Indian weightlifter to win an Olympic medal, then travelled to St. Louis, USA, for a month-long rehab program with her long-term coach Dr. Aaron Horschig in January. The move paid dividends on Monday as Mirabai's lifts looked smooth - albeit at much lesser weights and a weaker playing field by her standards - and reinstalled faith that she can fight for a second successive Olympic medal.

She will soon head to La Ferté-Milon in France, nearly a month before her event, to prepare for the most challenging competition of her life in Paris. Back in Tokyo, she had opened India's medal tally and the expectations will be no different this time around.

Speaking after the competition Mirabai said "It feels incredible to come back after an injury. Almost every lift I made today felt clean, clear, and powerful, and I'm leaving this competition feeling strong and confident. The rehabilitation was tough and demanding, but with the support of everyone involved in my rehab and recovery, I pushed through all the complications. The journey to get here required relentless dedication and hard work, and I couldn't be happier being back on the ramp - lifting and competing for my country. The goal was to secure my spot for the Paris Olympics, and now that I am almost through for the Paris Olympics, all my attention is on making a mark at the Paris Olympics."

Her coach Mr. Vijay Sharma said, "Our entire focus leading up to this event was solely on her (Mirabai's) rehabilitation. Seeing her perform comfortably today, given she is returning after six months of injury and rehabilitation, makes me proud of all the hard work we have done. Today, she was comfortable and confident in her lifts. Now that we're almost through, our focus is firmly set on the Paris Olympics 2024. It's time to channel all our energy into preparing for the main event in Paris."

The odds are stacked against Mirabai: she's coming back from an injury, hasn't competed as much as she'd liked to and the competition is only getting harder - China's Hou Zhihui has been breaking world records, with Thailand's Khambao Surodchana and Sukcharoen also improving. But if there's one thing we know about Mirabai, it's that she will fight. She will make each of those six lifts count.