Bajrang Punia had once threatened to go to court for it.
Sakshi Malik has openly questioned the qualification process.
HS Prannoy has said things like this “can happen only in India.”
Every year the National Sports Awards, or more importantly, the Khel Ratna and the Arjuna Award have become more about controversy, and less about celebrating India’s sporting highs.
This year was no different with a never-before 5 Khel Ratnas and a massive 27 Arjuna awards being given out.
The Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna is the highest sporting honour in the country, meaning, the best of the best get it and even in years that athletes won Olympic medals or created records at Asian or Commonwealth Games, never have five awards been given. Four was the highest number after the Rio Olympics.
So what happened in 2019 that the sports ministry decided to name five recipients?
Not much actually. A look at the winners will help elaborate the point.
Cricketer Rohit Sharma had a standout 2019 with his five centuries at the World Cup and was even named the ICC’s ODI Cricketer of the Year in 2019.
Vinesh Phogat with her bronze from the World Championship and Asian Championship in 2019 and also the golds from the 2018 CWG and Asian Games was another deserving winner.
But the controversy was sparked by the names of the three other recipients – Manika Batra, Rani Rampal and Paralympian Mariyappan T.
While she walked into the screen to receive her award at the virtual ceremony, the announcer confirmed that Manika’s Khel Ratna was being given for her four medals from the 2018 CWG and the bronze from the 2018 Asian Games. Only, the same achievements had already won her the Arjuna Award in 2018. This was more in focus as since that year, Manika hasn't been able to replicate her form with her rankings, falling out of the world’s top 50.
Something similar happened in the case of Paralympian Mariyappan T. His Khel Ratna was won on the bases of his 2016 Rio Paralympics gold medal. A monumental achievement but one for which he had already won the Arjuna Award in 2017 – the second highest sporting honour in the country.
So how really does this work?
Is a Paralympics gold worthy both of India’s highest sporting honour – the Khel Ratna and the second-highest sporting honour – the Arjuna?
How do the same five medals earn Manika an Arjuna first and then a Khel Ratna?
And what in all these achievements were so pressing that the Sports Ministry and the Selection Committee decided to award an unprecedented five Khel Ratnas this year, despite the selection guidelines categorically stating that “There will be only one award every year to be given to an individual sportsperson. This condition will be relaxed only in exceptional circumstances.”
What was so ‘exceptional’ about these performances from 2016 and 2018 that had already been rewarded that they were acknowledged again?
An athlete who missed out from the awards list this year, despite over 30 sportspersons being awarded in the two categories, was Sakshi Malik.
The 2016 Khel Ratna awardee had put forward her name fro the Arjuna award for her three Asian Championships medals and the one gold from the Commonwealth Championship medal won in the window for the awards this year – 1 January 2016 to 31 December 2019.
In fact, the Selection Committee even recommended her for the Arjuna award but the Sports Ministry dropped her name. Why?
Their explanation – if she’s won the highest sporting honour then why does she want the second highest?
But if one medal can win you both awards then why can’t separate achievements win an athlete both trophies? Specially when you consider that an Arjuna, not the Khel Ratna, helps sportspersons avail monetary benefits, higher salaries and rewards like land from their state governments.
Since the Khel Ratna was introduced only in 1992, the states haven’t extended the benefits to the highest sporting honour of the country.
Why? That’s a question for another day.
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