Numbers worth their weight in gold: The math behind India's medals

Vijay Kumar Sharma (in white) with, from left to right, Sanjita Chanu, Mirabai Chanu and Sathish Sivalingam Photo: Vijay Sharma

When he is not number crunching, he is half-squatting, grimacing, and nearly picking up the barbell with clenched teeth and fists from the sidelines as his students thrust the metal into the air.

Ready with a consoling arm, comforting word and even a handy muscle rub, national coach Vijay Sharma is mentor, guide, friend, masseur and the go-to man for Indian weightlifters. And the results are in gold - five so far, which is India's best-ever result at the Commonwealth Games.

"So the idea was to go for a medal with just the weight necessary to fetch one," Sharma says. "For those still recovering from injuries like Sathish (Sivalingam) and Rahul (Regala Venkat) we didn't even want to touch their best performance. Calculations told us that it wouldn't be needed either."

Of course both, Sathish and Rahul, who won gold medals, were disappointed for not even hitting their best numbers, forget getting past them. In the 77kg category, Sathish had set a Games record in 2014 Glasgow with a lift of 149 kg in the snatch. At the trials for the Rio Olympics, he totaled 336 kg (151 kg in snatch and 185 kg in clean & jerk).

On Saturday though, a 317kg total was enough to take him to gold. For Rahul too, as opposed to his personal best showing of 351kg (156 kg snatch and 195kg clean & jerk) at the Commonwealth Championships last year, he needed to lift just 338kg for the top podium finish in Gold Coast this time.

"It might be possible that they may have felt that they couldn't give their best, but if we're getting an easy gold there's no need to stretch an already injured body. So it's not so much about having to touch peak performance every time. But we have athletes we could afford to, we went for records as you can see with both Mirabai and Sanjita Chanu. So it's really about striking a balance between what the athlete can do physically and needs to do for a medal."

Mirabai, who successfully attempted an 80kg lift in her first attempt in snatch, created a new Commonwealth Championships record by lifting 86 kg in her third attempt, along with exceeding her own personal best of 85kg. In clean and jerk, while her first successful attempt of 103 kg broke the Commonwealth Games record, her third attempt of 110kg helped her create an all-new personal best of 196, two kilos more than her previous best. In the 53kg category, Sanjita, who successfully attempted an 81kg lift in her first attempt in snatch, created a new Commonwealth Games record by lifting 84kg in her third attempt.

While it may not seem too evident, a lot of thought and math goes behind the attempts chosen. When the coach walks up to the table during competitions and fills out the column mentioning what his lifter's next attempt would be, he has already factored in training maxes, current ability and the numbers of the field.

"So, we look up every competitor, their best performance and entry total and we're able to make a rough estimate of how much they can possibly lift at the competition. We put down our numbers accordingly and try to push them to misses. Unko bas fasa ke rakhna hai (we have to keep them guessing)."

The Rio Olympics two years ago was a disaster for both Sathish and Mirabai. While Sathish finished fourth in the Group B lower-ranked competitors pool, Mirabai couldn't even lift her 104 kg clean and jerk entry attempt.

"Yes Rio was a big lesson for us," Sharma admits. "After August 2016 we brought about a complete overhaul in our approach, our sessions, training pattern and also a focus on dope, everything. Also we started to have mental coaching for lifters. That's where we lost out at the Olympics, not being able to read our opponents.

"I'm working with the Indian lifters at the national camp in Patiala for the five years now so I know what each is capable of and can deliver. Before a tournament we read up everything available online about all the competitors. It gives us an understanding of how far high up they can go.

"Like for Sathish who was suffering from a thigh injury, we planned his lifts in a way knowing that the British guy (John Oliver, who finished with silver) doesn't have a good jerk, so we took a slight lead in snatch and weren't required to go for a third clean and jerk attempt." Oliver failed in two out of this three clean and jerk attempts for 171kg and managed a total of 312 kg, five lesser than Sathish.

Keeping his injury in mind, Sathish has not been doing squats in training. "For three months we've been training him in just standing, power mode. Not a single squat have we given him in training over the past three months. In this competition we faced a lot of problems because of not having a physio and masseur with us at all times. Recovery is the most important part of weightlifting."

Even when it comes to gold medals, Sharma has his math in place. "We should win six medals."

So five down, one to go.