Saikhom Mirabai Chanu: One Olympic medal and its many stories

Even as she quietly basks in glory after her Tokyo triumph, Mirabai Chanu is aware of how things would have been different had she missed out on her attempts on the platform.
Mirabai Chanu kissing her medal at Tokyo Olympics 2020
Mirabai Chanu kissing her medal at Tokyo Olympics 2020
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India is a multitude of stories: some stories get told, some stories remain unheard; some change over time, some remain in the public imagination for a brief glorious moment only to fade in due course, while some stories emerge in bits and pieces.

The multitude of stories emerging from the spotlight on Saikhom Mirabai Chanu after her recent win at the Tokyo Olympics needs to be reflected on at length.

The silver medal for weightlifting (49 kg category) Olympics made Mirabai Chanu a media favourite while an adoring public has gone into raptures across the country. Mirabai Chanu’s story is one of grit in the face of poverty, lack of any support in her formative years and being inspired by another diminutive weightlifting champion from Manipur — Nameirakpam Kunjarani Devi, whose achievements at the national and international arena led many in the state to take up sports. N Kunjarani, currently based in Delhi where she is serving as a nodal officer of the Central sports team in the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), is a proud mentor today.

“The ultimate for every sportsperson is an Olympic win and there is nothing better in the world for a sportsperson than seeing one’s mentee reaching such heights,” says Kunjarani. “I am immensely proud of her. What she has done, coming from a place like Manipur which still does not have enough support systems for sportspersons when they start out, is a clear example of how determination and hard work pay in the long run,” she adds.

Manipur is often described as a sports powerhouse because of the number of sports talents that emerge from the state, but it needs to be pointed out that pursuing sports as a discipline is not a widespread practice. Every footballer, hockey player, boxer, cyclist, archer from the state have their poverty and roots in a village as common factors and sports remains a way to secure a job. The pursuit of sports in Manipur is further challenged by the lack of facilities and financial support. According to Sunil Elangbam, Secretary of the Manipur Olympics Association, sportspersons continue to get a daily allowance of Rs 200 when they go to take part in regional and national level tournaments. “It has become a practice to recognise sportspersons after they have achieved something on the world stage but only a careful nurturing right from their formative years can make Manipur a true sports powerhouse,” says Sunil.

Mirabai Chanu’s village at Nongpok Kakching was often a battleground between Central security forces and armed militant groups, with the former launching search operations and intense frisking and the latter going to homes for shelter or food. Mirabai Chanu’s mother, Saikhom Ongbi Tombi Leima, continues to be a Meira Paibi member, keeping vigil with flaming bamboo torches in hand at night whenever there is a disturbance in the locality. Tombi Leima is the only sports enthusiast in the family. “I loved to run but in our time, we had no idea it was something I could pursue. I follow football matches in our locality and contribute whatever little amount I can whenever there is a donation drive for the matches,” she says. Born to a family of 12 siblings, Mirabai Chanu’s mother worked in the family’s paddy field, something that she still continues to this day. Asked what made her agree for her then 12-year-old daughter to travel every day to the Khuman Lampak stadium for practice, Tombi Leima points out that others from their village were into sports. What stood out about her daughter was her doggedness. “Every time there was a spell of bandhs and curfews in the state due to various political agitations, she would miss the practice and would be unhappy about it. But she thought nothing of the bare meals she had,” she says.

Speaking at the felicitation program organised by the Manipur Government, Mirabai Chanu said, “I have always wanted to do something that will tell the world about my small state of Manipur,” reflecting the onus on having to prove being worthy of belonging to India. Speaking over the phone, Mirabai Chanu recounts her own experiences of being catcalled and feeling angry whenever she heard of incidents in which people from North East India were harassed, adding that the sports arena is where such distinctions do not exist. “At our training camps, we are all the same but those of us from the region have had experiences outside the sports arena. We have this shared sadness of similar experiences,” she says.

Outside of the sports arena, there is a strong appropriation of Mirabai Chanu into the politics of religion by blurring her individuality and roots. ‘Mirabai Chanu religion’ was one of the top Google searches in the immediate aftermath of the Tokyo win. Mirabai Chanu’s name has been wrongly reported with many referring to her as ‘Chanu’, which is appended to the names of unmarried Meitei women and girls, who practise the indigenous religion of Sanamahi or Sanamahism in Manipur, which was in practice before Hinduism came to Manipur. Some continue to address her as ‘Saikhom’, which is a clan name and is never used on its own to address someone. The majority of Meiteis follow Hinduism but there is an assimilation of the pre Hindu indigenous belief systems in every Meitei household with the South West corner of the house being consecrated for the Meitei deities. It is this assimilation that reflects in Mirabai Chanu’s own belief system.

For those believing that Mirabai Chanu is a Hindu because of her name, the origin of her name lies in a story of friendship. “The name Mirabai was given to me by my third sister because her best friend’s name was Mirabai. My sister had to drop out of school because of the financial situation in our house and before they parted ways, she promised her that if she ever had a younger sister, the baby would bear the friend’s name as a legacy and remembrance of their friendship,” says Mirabai who adds that she identifies herself as a follower of the Sanamahi belief system as does her family. “All religion are the same, the names differ. I need the blessings of every God!” she says laughing heartily, going on to add that she prays to both the Meitei deities as well as Hindu ones.

Back in her home in Nongpok Kakching in Imphal East district, the Olympian has had no respite from the numerous phone calls and felicitations happening at her home with small groups coming to congratulate or felicitate her. She has been appointed as Additional Superintendent of Police (Sports) and handed a cash award of Rs 1 crore by the Manipur Government, but Mirabai is quick to say that more systems need to be in place to nurture sportspersons when they start out. Even as she quietly basks in glory after her Tokyo triumph, Mirabai Chanu is aware of how things would have been different had she missed out on her attempts on the platform. “After the Rio Olympics (2016) where I failed in my attempts, not only was I being trolled and written about as a failure, I lost my self confidence as well. I wept for two days and did not eat at all, I was broken” — this from a sportsperson who was only 22 years then.

“I can look back on that experience now in a clinical manner and recognise that it came from intense pressure and the weight of expectations. I still remember the palpitations I felt four years ago. The anxiety I felt at that time put me in a distinct blur and I had no idea what I was doing. But the team rallied around me and I benefitted from the counsel that came at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) training camp,” Mirabai Chanu says. When she walked out to the arena for the lifts on July 24, it was the second day of her monthly period and she wasn’t feeling buoyant. “As I took each step towards the barbell with the weight plates, I felt a flutter of nerves but I felt different this time. I knew I could do it, despite failing in the first two attempts in the snatch section.”

Have things changed at all? Yes, if one talks about the media. At least two national news channels tried to turn Mirabai Chanu into a performance artist and not an Olympian by asking her to sing for them: she turned down one channel politely and sang a Manipuri song, making a statement in her own way with grace. Will things change for sports people in Manipur? Not till they make it big.

Cries of ‘Bharat ki beti’ resounded when Mirabai Chanu landed at New Delhi, further amplified on social media where she has been anointed as ‘India’s pride’, but what are the chances that the win at Tokyo will lead to more understanding and acceptance of the people of the state and the region?

None, for people from North East India will continue to face racist slurs, harassment and discrimination. A national newspaper put out the photograph of an Indonesian athlete while reporting on Mirabai Chanu’s Tokyo win. An actor tweeted a congratulatory note using the same photograph featuring the Indonesian athlete, further stoking familiar, existing resentments amongst people from this part of the country where such racist 'confusion' coming from similar facial features conflates the individuality of a person with ‘they all look the same’ — they’re then cast as aliens within their own country.

On the same day that social media was trending with Mirabai Chanu as ‘India’s pride’, a Manipur journalist based in Delhi tweeted how his neighbours threatened him physically. And so the story continues.

Chitra Ahanthem is a freelance journalist from Manipur based in New Delhi.

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