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Manipuri women in the world of sports

S Mirabai Chanu. (Twitter Photo) @mirabai_chanu

Two decades of consistently churning out weightlifters that are among the best in the world is Manipur’s reminder that the Olympics are not a once-in-four-year event. But a way of life.

By Sanjenbam Jugeshwor Singh

Mirabai Chanu wins India’s first medal at Tokyo Olympics 2020. When one of India’s greatest moments in weightlifting was being hoisted into reality by the legendary Karnam Malleswari, at the Sydney game in 2000, the state of Manipur was laying the ground for their own moment in the sun albeit 21 years later. Barring the Beijing Games, the state has sent four different weightlifters over five Olympics- a generational effort that culminated in Mirabai Saikhom Chanu’s monstrous 202 -kg combined lift for the Tokyo Olympics Silver medal in the 49-kg weightlifting category. Two decades of consistently churning out weightlifters that are among the best in the world are Manipur’s reminder that the Olympics are not a once-in-four-year event. But a way of life. A way of life that begins at a young age because of the state’s unique way of organized sport for young children through clubs. Former commissioner of Youth affairs and Sports for Manipur, RK Nimai Singh in one of his expressed views says “The sports Clubs culture has been a part of Manipur for centuries now’’. These clubs aren’t associated with any state or national associations. They are only present because of the love of sport and an outlet of activity for young kids. For a Manipuri child, there is an option other than studying and that is to play.

 Manipur, a tiny state with an area of 22,327 sq. km in the north-eastern part of India is home to diverse ethnic groups and sub-groups. The sex ratio, according to 2011 census is 934 per 1000 males and has decreased as compared to 975 per 1000 in the last census prior to 2011. Manipur has a literacy rate of 79.85% with male literacy 86.49% and female literacy at 73.19%. In general women hold a high and free position in Manipur. Manipur is a state where women occupy a very unique position in society since time immemorial. The Manipuri women enjoy much more freedom to move around and so are much more enlightened and intelligent unlike in other parts of the country, where women are kept inside their homes. Women have always been held in respect and accorded honor in Manipur. Manipuri women are usually inspired by the ideal women depicted in literature both mythology and legendary. It may be said that most women while discharging their duties in the families are still following in varying degrees, the principles, and norms prescribed by IMOINU, a mythological Goddess for the maintenance of peace and welfare of the family. In addition to their household responsibilities, women also participate in social functions and religious ceremonies. Since early times, women have been taking active parts in the performance of religious rites and rituals. Another important contribution of Manipuri women is in the field of art and culture. They have added a lot to the cultural heritage in dance, literature and the like. The world-famous ‘’RAS LILA’’ is performed by female artists only. Manipuri women’s contribution in the field of sports is not the least to mention.

    The rise of Manipur women in Indian sports has been phenomenal. From weightlifting, boxing to football, Manipur in the North-Eastern state has provided one of the finest sporting talents to the nation over several years. The terrific supply-line of Manipur sports has also won them two Olympics medals. Let us have a look at the five times when Manipuri’s women made India proud in sports. Before the eminence of Mirabai Chanu and Marry Kom on the international stage, KUNJARANI DEVI, led the state of Manipur in sporting glory. She has won seven silver medals in various world championships over the years and shared the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratana award with Leander Paes. SARITA DEVI, was one of India’s finest boxers in the recent past. Devi was crowned the 2006 world champion gold medalist. She also bagged the bronze medal titles in the 2005 and 2008 world championships. Devi is also known for her Asian games bronze medal in 2014 which was marred by controversy as she denied receiving the medal after allegations that the judges were partial and did not reward her the points after she knocked her opponent out in the third round. BEMBEM DEVI, nick-named as the Durga of Indian women football. Bembem Devi is arguably the greatest women footballer of India. Devi is a central midfielder and has won the Padmashri for her football Laurels. She won the SAFF women’s championship thrice and also was the two-time gold recipient of the South Asian Games with India. Devi last played for Manipur Police in the Indian Women’s league back in 2019. Mangte Chungneijang Marry Kom is an obvious choice as the greatest moment of Manipur sport. Kom became the first-ever athlete from the state of Manipur to win an Olympic medal as she clinched bronze in the flyweight category at the London 2012 Olympic Games.  The Padma Vibhushan has also clinched six world championships and five Asian championships. She also won her first and only Commonwealth Games Gold medal in 2018 at Gold Coast, Australia. Kom is a mother of four and is still going strong in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. SAIKHOM MIRABAI CHANU became the second medalist in weightlifting and only the second Indian woman to win an Olympic silver.

Chanu lifted her way to second place in the women’s 49-kg to win India’s first medal at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Chanu broke the world record in women’s 49-kg weight lifting as she lifted an astounding 119 kg in clean and jerk in 2020 Asian Championship, making her one of the greatest weightlifters in history. BOMBELA in Archery, BALA DEVI in football and many others are not the least as Indian sports stars from Manipur in the sky of sports.

    In Manipur, children are afforded the opportunity to decide what sport to play and what sport to pick. By the time they reach their teens, they may not be specialists in a particular sport but consistent level of physical activity leads to a far easier transition than most young athletes when moving professionally into a discipline. As has been the case from the start of the century a steady stream of women in weightlifting, heading to the farthest corners of the globe to compete in the best tournaments offer, continues to fuel the desire for what is a casual aspect of life, to become the center point of their existence. But what happens when these kids start to grow up? At the beginning of 90’s, people started to realize that sport could be an earning profession. The opening of a Sports Authority of Indi’s center in Imphal suddenly gave weightlifters in the state the opportunity to go from spare parts of automobiles as weights to real imported equipment. Former weightlifters were also part of the change as their careers transitioned from athletes to coaches. Mirabai Chanu’s story trudges along the same line- a young 12-year-old child lifting heavy logs in her hometown of Nongpok Kakching, 44-km away from Imphal who one day got noticed by Anita Chanu, a former international weightlifter and coach. What Anita Chanu saw in the Mirabai Chanu was something most Manipuri experts in sports say is an intrinsic part of their cultural identity. Anita Chanu said, when she saw Mirabai’s lift for the first time, she had a killer instinct. And how that killer instinct quantified? Explosive strength; stresses, Anita Chanu, who further explains by saying that people from the north-eastern states of India are smaller in height but make up for it with a Maradona and Messi-esque low center of gravity, a crucial aspect of why Manipur does so well in sport, be it weightlifting or football or boxing. That low center of gravity saw Mirabai pick almost four times her body weight across five successful lifts in snatch and clean and jerk categories. But it isn’t height or body type or region, that defines their abilities, The secret also lies in what is put into their bodies. Or rather, what has been put into their bodies for generations.

  Most athletes in lower weight categories come from Asian countries like China and South Korea. These countries are famous for sticky rice being a part of their diet. In Manipur, most people eat rice as a primary source of energy, says Sunil Elangbam, the secretary of Manipur Weightlifting Association. This simplistic way of nutrition, one that has been generational staple for them, is considered a prime source of fuel by experts for essential carbohydrates that end up aiding in physical training. These carbohydrates do the job of being easy to digest while pushing the body to recover faster after intense workouts. It is this combination of the right kind of food, the lay of land and generations of women to look up to in weightlifting, the brewed itself into the perfect storm. A silver in Tokyo, borne out of a killer instinct that now adorns the state, just as its glory in the Olympics do. This is an undeniable fact that Manipuri’s women are always at the forefront in any field of social activity which is not found in any part of the globe for which we bow to the Manipuri women for their glory anytime, anywhere.

(Sanjenbam Jugeshwor Singh is Asst Prof JCRE Global College, Babupara, Imphal. He can be reached contacted at [email protected]

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