Like many other international athletes and coaches

The North Koreans are set to return from their self-imposed exile. And the world is not happy. For more than three years, the weightlifting powerhouse did not compete internationally due to the strict Covid-19 policies, which barred even their citizens from entering the country. But now, with the Asian Games on the horizon and the Paris Olympics qualification cycle underway, North Korea’s lifters will make a comeback next month for the International Weightlifting Federation’s (IWF) Grand Prix in Havana. And their return is met with scorn. “Ethically, this is wrong,” said India’s chief coach Vijay Sharma. “This should not happen. People (from the weightlifting world) are protesting. Even we are against it. It is wrong.” Like many other international athletes and coaches, Sharma is critical of the IWF’s decision because of doping concerns given that North Korean lifters haven’t been dope tested since December 2019. Their return, however, also makes the path to the podium even more challenging for Indian lifters, more so in the case of Olympics silver medallist Mirabai Chanu. The 200kg club For years, it seemed like Chanu simply had to turn up at international events and do the bare minimum – manage six good lifts and meet her personal bests – to win a medal. But North Korea’s impending, controversial comeback along with return to competition in the last few months of lifters from two other dope-tainted countries, Thailand and Romania, means Chanu will have very little margin for error going forward. Until a few months ago, there were just three weightlifters – China’s Hou Zhihui and Jiang Huihua, apart from Chanu – who breached the 200kg mark in the 49kg category. Now, there are six who have achieved that feat, which means that a tally that would guarantee a medal could henceforth be the starting point of podium battles. Changing hierarchy A glimpse of how fine the margins are was seen at the recently-concluded Asian Championship, where the Indian was displaced by the Thai women as the next-best lifter after the Chinese, which was an established hierarchy in the last few years. ADVERTISEMENT It finished China-China-Thailand-Thailand-Japan-India at the continental championship, with the top four hitting the double-century mark and managing a snatch total of at least 90kg, better than Chanu’s personal best. Indeed, it was a performance where Chanu, still recovering from an injury, did not look comfortable. She had only one legal lift in the snatch event (85kg) and attempted just once in clean-and-jerk, where she lifted 109kg, 10 less than her personal best. North Korean in the mix Add North Korea’s Ri Song Gum – one of the seven women scheduled to compete next month – to the mix and Chanu’s path gets even more challenging. Gum, the reigning Asian Games champion and a 2019 World Championship bronze medallist, has a personal best of 209 – 91 in snatch and 118 in clean and jerk. It is 4kg more than Chanu, whose best of 205kg came two years ago. ADVERTISEMENT This will be perhaps the most competitive field in the 49kg class in a long time. Sharma is relishing the opportunity, even highlighting the rapid rise of Romania’s Mihaela-Valentina Cambei, who is just 2kg short of entering the 200 club. “We are keeping an eye on what our competitors are doing. If there’s a fight, it’ll be better,” Sharma said. “We have to fight against Thailand or North Korea if they come and focus on our performance. If the level of competition increases it also pushes us to do better.” Doping concerns Sharma, however, is against the inclusion of the North Koreans because of doping concerns. According to the International Testing Agency, which is responsible for carrying out dope tests in weightlifting, North Korea’s weightlifters have not been tested since December 2019. In contrast, Chanu had to undergo dope tests eight times in 2021 and 2022 alone. “All of us, be it lifters from India or other countries, are regularly tested. We are aware of North Korea’s history. Even when everything was okay, no one was allowed inside the country to (test them). So this is unfair to other athletes,” Sharma said. Unless the IWF reverses its decision, North Korea’s lifters will be seen in action for the first time since 2019 on June 8. Chanu will not be competing in the Grand Prix. But when she returns to action in September – a hectic month when the World Championship and Asian Games will be held back-to-back – the competition field in the 49kg weight class will look stronger than it has for years. At the Tokyo Olympics, only the two Chinese weightlifters were ahead of Mirabai Chanu – Hou Zhihui and Jiang Huihua. These three lifters were the only ones who had crossed the 200kg mark heading into those Games after North Korea pulled out. Ahead of Paris Olympics, the number of lifters in the 200kg club has doubled from three to six. Apart from Chanu, Hou and Jiang, the others are North Korea’s Ri Song Gum, who will return to competition next month after more than three years, and Thailand’s Surodchana Khambao and Thanyathon Sukcharoen. Chanu visits Manipur,output,60708083.html,css,js,output The first thing Mirabai Chanu did after returning from the Asian Championship was to visit her home in Nongpik Kakching, Manipur, to be with her family amidst the clashes. Chanu, who could not immediately get in touch with her parents after the violence broke out, spent a couple of days at home. “She is fine now and so is her family,” coach Vijay Sharma said. “After returning from South Korea, Mira went home for two days to be with them. She is now back at training.”