'Typing error destroyed my best years': Sanjita Chanu returns with vengeance
Sanjita Chanu, who had initially outshone Mirabai Chanu but was then left in the lurch by Weightlifting, is now fighting a quiet battle away from the spotlight. Back from banishment and suicidal thoughts, the 2-time CWG gold medallist now has a point to prove.
Imphal: The weightlifting hall at the SAI Manipur Complex is agog with an air of excitement and clanging dumbbells in the aftermath of the 2022 Commonwealth Games, from where local heroes Mirabai Chanu and Bindyarani Devi returned with medals earlier this month.
But as the crowd of future weightlifting superstars clears away inside the hall where the two had been moulded into champions, the last person left training cuts a lonely figure.
"Mirabai and I were given this same reception last time, this time I had to make do by just seeing the photos," Sanjita Chanu told The Bridge.
Sanjita had burst into the spotlight at the same time as Mirabai Chanu - initially outshining her - eight years ago at the Glasgow CWG as a 20-year-old. The two girls from similar rural backgrounds trained together, shared their mistakes with each other, lived and breathed the air of the same SAI weightlifting hall before both went to the national camp in Patiala.
"It is very important that Mirabai keeps winning. It means a lot to Manipur and the whole of India. All of us at home were praying that she gets the gold medal this time too," says Sanjita, even though their paths have diverged tragically.
Anita Chanu, a coach who has seen both Mirabai and Sanjita coming up the ranks together, said what might separate the two is clarity of mind.
"Both worked with me at the national camp. What I observed as the difference between them is that Sanjita suffered from overthinking while Mirabai's mind was flexible. Sanjita used to compartmentalise which advice which coach had given her, that might have been cluttering her mind," she told The Bridge.
It was Sanjita who was the golden child of Indian weightlifting till 2015. At the 2014 CWG, it was Sanjita who won gold while Mirabai took silver in the same category. The following year, after Sanjita finished 14th to Mirabai's 9th at the World Championships, her coaches advised her to move up a weight category. Despite this forced change, she won a second gold medal at the 2018 CWG, a feat Mirabai replicated this year in Sanjita's old category. It seemed back then that her legacy would be set in stone, till a 'typing error' threw her life upside down.
"I went into complete depression after the international federation accused me of doping, I couldn't understand what was happening and it hurt when I heard people repeating rumours. It was such a dark thought that the same people who had showered their love on me could be suspicious of me," says Sanjita.
Sanjita's case reveals problems within weightlifting
Now 28, Sanjita returned to the SAI complex from her four-year banishment a month ago, having battled past thoughts of quitting the sport and even life altogether, but she wants answers for having lost the best years of her career.
"Their job was done by saying it was a 'typing error', but I have lost so much time. Even the Indian federation stayed silent then, if only they had tried to help me! The Arjuna Award announced for me in 2018 still has not reached me even after my name has been cleared. The federation keeps asking me if I have received it, but shouldn't they know when I will?"
The way Sanjita Chanu was treated by the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) is symptomatic of the malaise of lack of transparency confronting the sport of weightlifting.
"I sent many e-mails to the IWF trying to understand whose sample got mixed up with mine. Thoughts of having been framed in a false case, trying to wonder who they were trying to protect - if it was some rival of mine - took me to a dark place. Now I've stopped bothering about it, I just want to make up for lost time," says Sanjita.
But not just the mix-up of sample numbers, an error so glaring that even Manipur CM Biren Singh tweeted about it and the IWF was forced to admit an 'administrative mistake', the entire sequence of events around her ban were peculiar.
It took six months for the IWF to communicate the ban to the Indian Weightlifting Federation (IWLF), during which time she won the 2018 CWG gold. An email that they claimed they sent to her remained undelivered. When her ban was lifted, there was no reason given, and even after that she was not allowed to compete in tournaments.
Making up for lost time
In her darkest days of despair, when she would not step out of her house for fear of having to face people, it was Sanjita's family who rallied around her. She got married, moved to Imphal from her village Kakching Khunou with her extended family, and slowly returned to who she used to be.
"I could not access the facilities any more, but my family kept telling me to not quit the sport, to train with whatever I could manage at home. They did not let me do any household work, they kept pushing me to be who I was - a weightlifter for India," says Sanjita.
Now back to the superhuman training routine that took her to the world stage a decade ago, Sanjita says she wants to just play and not bother about who pays their dues to her or when. Only one day - Sunday - is allowed to be a rest day. On all other days, she is the first to arrive and the last to leave. She touches her coach's feet at the start and at the end, a gesture of respect she was not allowed to do for so long.
"Now that I am back, I cannot ever stop thinking of competing. I have to prove to the doubters that whatever I achieved was because of who I was," she says.
Sanjita took a baby step towards her eventual aim by winning the Inter-Railways gold medal recently. Her next focus is on the National Games so that she can prove herself again to Manipur. Then she wants to qualify for the Asian Games and prove herself again to India.