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Advantage Mirabai and Vinesh as North Korea withdraws from Tokyo Olympics

Mirabai Chanu. Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Mirabai Chanu and Vinesh Phogat are the Indian athletes who stand to gain the most following the announcement by North Korea that they would not be participating in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Chanu, who competes in the 49kg women's weightlifting division, and Phogat, who will represent India in the 53kg division in women's wrestling, are both medal contenders. Competitors from North Korea happen to be among their nearest rivals.

North Korea's sports ministry said on Tuesday that it would not participate in Tokyo this year to protect its athletes amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The decision was made at a meeting of North Korea's Olympic committee, including its sports minister Kim Il Guk, on 25 March, the ministry said on its website, Joson Sports. "The committee decided not to join the 32nd Olympics Games to protect athletes from the global health crisis caused by the coronavirus," it said.

Chanu, the 2018 World Champion, is currently the 4th ranked weightlifter in her division, placed behind North Korea's Ri Song Gum, and China's Hou Zhihui and Jia Huihua. At the 2019 World Championships, Chanu placed fourth with a total lift of 201, behind Ri who totaled 203. Hou and Jia took silver and gold with a total lift of 211 and 212 respectively. Chanu, however, was 13 kilos clear of fifth-placed Ana Segura of Colombia.

At the Olympics, China will only be able to send one participant and the absence of North Korea's Ri would mean that Chanu would likely be competing for a silver medal, since she is so far clear of the next-best competitor. "It's good for us (that North Korea won't be participating)," says national coach Vijay Sharma. "The Olympics will be a straight fight between India and China. Right now, we are still behind them but we will try and see how much we can cover the gap," he says.

Vinesh too will benefit in Tokyo. She won a bronze medal at the 2019 World Championships after losing to Japan's Mayu Mukaida. Mukaida, in turn, was beaten by North Korea's Pak Yong Mi in the gold medal match. Pak is one of the strongest competitors in the women's 53kg division, with a gold medal at the 2018 Asian Games and three gold medals at the Asian Championships.

India's women wrestlers will also look to make the most of the absence of the North Koreans in the Asian Olympic qualifiers that begin in Kazakhstan on the 9th of this month. Seema Bisla would benefit from the absence of World bronze medalist Kim Son-Hyan in the 50kg division, while the exit of Worlds quarterfinalist Jong In Son should work in favour of Anshu Malik in the women's 57kg division.

While other North Korean athletes have won quotas in wrestling (Rim Jong-sim in the women's 62kg division) as well, it is still to be determined how that quota would be redistributed.