Even though, there are so many professions where Indians have exceled or made their mark but somehow, they have not been able to show their mettle in the world of sports. Is the general population not an avid sports lover? Well, this is not the case at all. Just look around and you would see people swear by numerous sports personalities, such as Lionel Messi, Sachin Tendulkar, Cristiano Ronaldo, Rodger Federer. People in India hero worship sports personalities but somehow fetching a medal at Olympics or qualifying in important sporting events has always been a jinx for Indians. Gone were the days when legendary Dhyan Chand would flick his magic-wand like hockey stick and bring most cherished gold medal one Olympic after the other. Actually, there are generations of Indians who have awaited with patience to see India open its medal tally in the Olympics, but all they had to see is prolonged lull and disappointment.
There are a few sports such as cricket, tennis, and badminton where India has achieved at the world stage, but rest of the other sports and athletics were in oblivion. A nation which worships cricket as a religion, for it to notice sportspersons other than those playing cricket needs great deal of achievement from the sportsperson’s side. During Tokyo Olympics, the nation got introduced to the weightlifter Saikhom Mirabai Chanu as she has fetched a silver medal for India in women’s 49 kg category. The whole country was pleasantly surprised to see someone coming into the arena out of the blue and achieving a silver medal and that too in Olympics. But frankly, she did not achieve this coming from the ranks of an underdog. It is just that as always is the case, cricketers over-shadow all other sport persons. Thus, as usual Mirabai’s past achievements have got eclipsed. Nonetheless, she has many feathers to her hat and not just the ones from her latest outing at the Commonwealth games or the Olympics in the past. Such as being two times Commonwealth gold medalist and world champion. She was awarded Padma Sri and Major Dhyan Chand Khel-Ratna award by Government of India both in the year 2018 for her contribution in sports. She could undoubtedly fit into the status of India’s finest weightlifters presently.
There is a famous quote by the writer, Jonathan Anthony Burkett- “You know my name, not my story. You know what I have done, not what I have been through,” This quote fits so aptly on Mirabai Chanu, who seems to have become the new poster girl of Indian sports. Her whole life story signifies just this. If we go through the trial and tribulations of her life, we will realize that there is something intriguing about her journey. What are the qualities that stand out for Mirabai? What are the essential ingredients that make a great sport person? Or for that matter any accomplished individual?
One of the fundamental qualities we find in all great personalities is that of the will to learn from mistakes. She has proved this true and emphasized that failures are the pillars of success. Just like the silver medal at the Tokyo Olympics that was actually scripted about four years ago at Rio Olympics 2016. Was she successful at Rio? Well, not really… She entered Rio Olympics shattering a 12-year national record, so the expectations were high. But as irony would have it, she was unable to complete any of her clean-and-jerk lifts due to nervousness. Thereafter she was subjected to criticism from all quarters and credibility of her coach was also questioned. So much so that Mirabai was so shaken that she was seriously considering retirement. It was not easy to come out of the Rio debacle but with her mother’s encouragement she decided to fight back. “I promised myself that I would work harder for four to five years and bring a medal at Tokyo.” she said. Mirabai is a fine example of the saying that success stories are not made in a day as it needs a lot of persistence, hard work and of course sacrifices. Slowly she gathered herself and contemplated what went wrong at Rio and made that experience a stepping-stone. Rest as we know is history.
Another quality common to all achievers is that of impeccable determination and fighting spirit embodied in never-say-die attitude. Interestingly, the story of her grit and determination starts even before these ground-breaking episodes. Mirabai’s journey from a small village about twenty-five kilometers away from Imphal, to the winners’ podium at Tokyo Olympic has been nothing but phenomenal. Coming from a humble background where her father worked in PWD and mother runs a shop, she did not get it easy but her fighting spirit has always been her forte. Her potential had come to light at an early age when Mirabai along with her siblings would go to the forest to collect firewood. On their way back home, her elder brothers use to struggle carrying the weight on their head, but Mirabai could carry greater weight than them. Her mother found this potential quite extraordinary hence she channelized her towards sports. Therefore, young Mirabai Chanu, all of twelve years, started to build her career inspired by a fellow Manipuri weightlifter, Nameirakpam Kunjarani Devi in the year 2006.
Coming from a humble background, her parents struggled to make ends meet and provide for their six children. But their limited resources did not exempt them from dreaming about her future. During initial days she struggled for proper diet, which is quite essential for the athletes. But this short coming did not deter the iron lady from her goal or the chosen path. Mirabai’s mother, a fighter herself, has been her great support and many a times she drew her strength from her mother. The later had once said with conviction, ‘’I can’t provide you with proper diet, but I will see you at the top.” This statement of her mother speaks volumes about her mother’s belief and undeterred will power which might have helped Mirabai to feel confident and keep her eyes focused on the goal while brushing off the roadblocks that had come her way.
In today world of self-marketing and PR management, important empowering qualities such as gratitude and humility are neglected or underestimated by many of us. But the truth is, if the qualities of learning from mistakes and determination give you wings, it is humility and gratitude that keep you grounded. This becomes all the more important when we see time and again talented individuals squander their potential with early success getting to their head. In this context, an interesting fact about Mirabai’s struggling days became known when the world saw her honoring 150 truck drivers and their helpers after she came back from Tokyo. We were surprised to see her treat them with lunch and thereafter gifted them a shirt and a Manipuri scarf each. This event was organized so that she could express her gratitude towards them. Why did she do this, a lot of people might ask? Well, there is an interesting story behind this gesture. Mirabai’s training academy was about 25 kms away from her village and money was also a constraint. Thus, she would take lift from the truck drivers going towards her training academy in Imphal. This needs to be mentioned that numerous truck drivers have helped her to reach the academy each day without expecting anything in return. Today, we see her reach the zenith but there is a battery of people, known or not so known, who have helped her reach the top. It was indeed heartening to see the truckers’ selfless gesture as well as the fact that Mirabai in turn did not forget the favors that she had received from them years ago. This also signifies that she values people. In fact, right after winning at Olympic, she told her mother that they have to find out all those truck drivers who helped her in her journey and honor them. This gesture truly stands out when there is a general trend in the society to accept help when in need and then forget about it the very next moment after the need has been taken care off. Keeping this into consideration, it is quite praiseworthy that Mirabai did not forget them during the best moments of her life. This speaks volumes about the person that she is. How we treat someone after we reach a comfortable position reveals our true character. She is a fine example of a strong woman, a fine blend of tough exterior and soft interior which is a rarity in today’s times.
The journey of Mirabai Chanu from shambles to the stars is an inspiration for many as she showed that obstacles or roadblocks that we face in life can ultimately be a stepping-stone that would help us to proceed towards our goal. If one hits a roadblock, one just needs to take a de-tour but there is no point in stopping your journey completely. Another important thing that one could learn is that everything can be achieved in life, but one has to keep his/her focus on the goal while sacrificing the unnecessary deviations from life.
Mirabai has proved that India has got a huge pool of talent and that Indian athletes can bring laurels for the country in which ever stage they represent. Provided, they get the right exposure, facilities, and support from all quarters. Besides, for Mirabai and numerous female athletes like her, taking up a more masculine sports becomes an added problem as they have to fight gender prejudices too apart from their existing list of hurdles. Still, ours is not a sporting nation, therefore we neither find sports as a bankable career nor do sports persons make huge money professionally (other than cricketers). Hence, it takes all the more un-deterred effort from the sports person’s side to make a mark in their chosen field. Mirabai’s achievement could pose as a motivational factor for youth across the country as they could think if Mirabai could achieve so much in spite of her difficulties than why can’t they.
With the recent win at Commonwealth games, she has proved that she is not ready to sit at her laurels instead she is sweating it out hard at practice sessions while keeping her focus on a higher goal. With proper support from the government, Indian sports is getting a much-needed breather in terms of up-lifting infrastructure, bringing in competent coaches, availability of sports equipment and accessories. As a result, more and more sports persons (not just a hand full of sports persons like cricketers and badminton players) are able to bring laurels for the country. Hope this continues and India gets to see many more Mirabai Chanu as there is no dearth of determined and talented people in this land.
– Aradhana Basu Das