Jhajharia, Sardar headline National Award winners

Jhajharia became the first ever para-athlete to be bestowed the honour while Sardar became only the second hockey player after Dhanraj Pillay to receive the highest award.

Sardar Singh: “There is nothing bigger than this award, it's the highest honour."   -  R.V. Moorthy

Devendra Jhajharia and Sardar Singh are no strangers to the grandeur of the Rashtrapati Bhawan. The duo has been in and out of the Durbar Hall (now being held at Ashoka Hall) on several occasions before, having been conferred honours and recognitions by successive governments over the years.

Monday evening, though, was special, outdone only by the actual event on Tuesday when President Ram Nath Kovind handed out the honours to the various award winners. Monday pre-event rehearsal was the first time they were called upon to receive the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna – the highest sports honour in the country – and made histories of their own, in completely different ways.

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Jhajharia on Tuesday became the first ever para-athlete to be bestowed the honour while Sardar became only the second hockey player after Dhanraj Pillay to receive the highest award on the birth anniversary of hockey wizard Dhyan Chand.

“The announcement of Khel Ratna was something different, I cannot explain it in words. I have been to the Rashtrapati Bhawan before for other awards (he is an Arjuna awardee and a Padma Shri) but this was not like that.

"It finally felt as if I had done something for my country and my government has recognised my efforts and rewarded me,” Jhajharia told Sportstar.

Sardar was in a similar situation. A Padma Shri and an Arjuna awardee himself, this was the biggest honour for Sardar, coming as a shot in the arm at a time when questions are being raised on his fitness and contribution to the national team.

“There is nothing bigger than this award, it's the highest honour. I know it has not been the best of times for me, either as a player or at a personal level.

"But the motivation from this award will only help me take away the positives from this honour and continue to try and perform my best in the upcoming events,” the former India captain said.

With a packed calendar ahead in the next 16 months – India plays the Asia Cup in October before hosting the Hockey World league Finals in December and Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and the World Cup in 2018, Sardar admitted, “I know I am not young any more. At 31, you need to be smart with your game and work harder than anyone on fitness. But I am confident of myself. This recognition will act as a booster and the first target is reclaiming the Asia Cup.” India last won the Asia Cup in 2007.

Jhajharia is aware of his age too. “There is a 34-second video of my Rio winning throw. I don't remember how many times have I seen it. But I know that it will give me the strength to run even at the age of 70.

"It's a special video of a very special performance. It proved that, if you train hard and stay focussed, you can set a new world record even at the age of 35. This will give hope to all the 4-5 crore people with disabilities in India,” Jhajharia said.

Besides the Khel Ratna, 17 Arjuna awards were also handed out on the day, along with six Dronacharya awards for coaching and three Dhyan Chand awards for Lifetime Achievement.

Awardees:

The Arjuna Award winners are Saketh Myneni (tennis), Jyoti Surekha Vennam (archery), Khushbir Kaur (athletics), Prashanti Singh (basketball), S.V. Sunil (hockey), S.S.P. Chaurasia (golf), Satyavrat Kadian (wrestling), Anthony Amalraj (table tennis), P.N. Prakash (shooting), Jasvir Singh (kabaddi), Laishram Devendro Singh (boxing) and Oinam Bembem Devi (football).


The recipients of this year's Dronacharya Awards are Late R. Gandhi (athletics), Heera Nand Kataria (kabaddi), G.S.S.V. Prasad (badminton, lifetime), Brij Bhushan Mohanty (boxing, lifetime), P.A. Raphel (hockey, lifetime), Sanjoy Chakraverthy (shooting, lifetime) and Roshan Lal (wrestling, lifetime).


The Dhyan Chand Award has been given to Bhupender Singh (athletics), Syed Shahid Hakim (football) and Sumarai Tete (hockey).