Each year, India's National Sports Day comes with its share of controversies. Sure, there is the token solemn remembrance of hockey wizard Major Dhyan Chand " the day marks his birth anniversary " but the dazzle well and truly belongs to the national sports awards that are conferred in a glittering ceremony in Rashtrapati Bhavan. Preceding the razzmatazz though are tears and tirades, heartburn and laments, and in some cases, threats of a legal notice.
This year, the selection panel outdid itself by nominating an unprecedented number of athletes for Arjuna and Khel Ratna honours. In what turned out to be a non-Olympic year marked with very little sporting action thanks to the raging coronavirus pandemic, a 'shortlist' of 29 Arjuna (later pruned to 27) and five Khel Ratna awardees did raise questions, and stalwarts such as wrestler Sushil Kumar, former trap shooter Ronjan Sodhi and pistol exponent Heena Sidhu talked about it on social and traditional media platforms.
That there was a clear conflict of interest in the appointment of Deepa Malik and Sardar Singh in the selection committee, both of who are active office bearers of their respective federations, was hard to miss too. While Malik is the president of the Paralympic Committee of India, Sardar is one of the national selectors at Hockey India. Incredibly, this came on the heels of the entirely avoidable rancidity that the appointment of boxing legend MC Mary Kom (an active athlete) to the selection panel spawned last year.
Almost on the cue, eight Paralympic and six hockey personnel (players and coaches) have found their names across various national sports awards this year. One would like to believe that, in the best interests of the awardees, the selections had nothing to do with the presence of the federation's president and selector in the committee. Then, there's the issue of Sakshi Malik and Mirabai Chanu, both recipients of Khel Ratna awards in 2016 and 2018 respectively, applying for an Arjuna, presumably because their respective states do not recognise India's highest sports awards for perks. The sports ministry struck off their names from the final list, but exactly why did they make it to the initial shortlist itself begs an explanation.
Rio Games medallist and Khel Ratna awardee Sakshi Malik applied for an Arjuna Award this year, but was denied by the sports ministry. AFP/File
Sakshi, whose slip since the Rio high is exemplary in its own right, promptly went on a Twitter tirade not unknown to Indian athletes, as did boxer Manoj Kumar and his brother-coach Rajesh Kumar Rajound. An athlete who did not wish to be named conceded that a number of his colleagues do seek cheap publicity and thrive on controversies. Ignoring javelin ace Neeraj Chopra for Khel Ratna and bestowing the top honour on table tennis star Manika Batra for the same achievements that won her Arjuna two years back is another glaring anomaly, more so when Batra's rankings have only dipped since a breakout 2018.
Likewise, paralympic high-jumper Mariyappan Thangavelu got the Arjuna and the Padma Shri for his gold at the 2016 Rio Paralympics in 2017. Three years on, he is getting a Khel Ratna for essentially the same achievements.
Agreed, the day marks the celebration of nation's sporting talent, and write-ups like these are more likely a needless, negative nuisance. Hard as one may try though, it is tough to look past the sense of entitlement that some of the elite athletes have come to embrace. A case in point is London Games medallist Saina Nehwal's reported reluctance to join the badminton national camp because the Badminton Association of India (BAI) and Sports Authority of India (SAI) did not call her husband Parupalli Kashyap to the camp. A couple of years back, Saina threw a fit at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast and threatened to pull out if her father was not given accommodation in the Games Village. These tricks clearly do not behove an athlete of Saina's calibre and stature.
Embarrassing as they are, these issues appear minuscule when one cares to look at our sportspersons beyond the prism of their on-field performances. Sports, they say, reveal characters. If one takes the ditty to heart and apply it to some of the things that some of our athletes have been saying with their crude, matter-of-factly insouciance, it would not make for a happy picture. Babita Phogat's tasteless tweets come to mind instantly, as do the unabashed thumbs-up of PV Sindhu, Yogeshwar Dutt, Geeta and Babita Phogat to the controversial encounter that the Telangana police carried out last year. For that matter, Virat Kohli's pearls of wisdom on demonetisation when economists around the world were still struggling to make sense of it made for sorry hilarity.
The propensity to appease the popular, the urge to swim with the current, and the need to pander to the powerful go against the basic grain of sports that, at its core, thrives on fairness, courage and conviction. An Indian athlete, as the country's lone individual Olympic gold-medallist Abhinav Bindra once famously said, excels despite the system and not because of it. One expects such battle-hardened women and men to have a mind of their own, to think beyond the trending hashtags and to have a better sense of putting their position of privilege to greater use. But, whenever there is an assault on the country's social fabric, and there have been far too many to ignore, the archetypical Indian athlete goes AWOL.
No wonder, when our athletes jostled to offer their condolences to Muhammad Ali " a rebel if ever there was one " a few years back, it all appeared too perfunctory, too make-believe, and too luridly impersonal.
As one writes this, American sport is in turmoil over the ghastly police murder of yet another black man. Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James has said that he is "scared" as a black-American. The likes of James, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant have made no secret of their anti-establishment views. Naomi Osaka, 22, made her stand clear in one remarkable step, while NBA, WNBA, MLB and MLS scrapped their games in protest on Thursday (27 August). Spine, anyone?
By contrast, what did our elite athletes do or say or write when the national capital burned earlier this year, or when goons " in masks, and in some cases, in uniform " ran amok in the university campuses, or when legitimate videos of police brutality surfaced during the lockdown, or when the migrant crisis forced us to peep out of our protected cocoons?
Barring an odd Irfan Pathan or a Jwala Gutta, no one dared criticise the state of affairs, and Pathan and Gutta, expectedly, have coped their share of online hate for standing their ground. Even now, as the coronavirus pandemic refuses to slow down, the athletes, perhaps living in a bubble thicker than most bio-secure ones, are busy promoting government's lousy fitness 'movements' on Twitter.
Agreed, a lot of Indian athletes depend on the government funding to sustain their careers, but what makes the immovable power centres " the likes of Dhonis, Tendulkars, Sainas, Sindhus " to look the other way when the nation they represent is in the midst of a majoritarian power-grab? An archetypical Indian athlete has sadly reduced him/herself to a caricature of the system he/she comes from: obsequious, apathetic and clueless. To see them go through the motions in lockdown " selling government schemes and effectively masking the colossal failure of a crumbling health system " one wonders if there a genuine fault in our stars or are they a product of their times? Perhaps both, it may be argued, and rightly so. As Cassius succinctly summed up in William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (Act I, Scene III), "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves that we are underlings." Our stars, as it has turned out, are no less underlings than us.