National Sports Awards: Why different yardsticks for different athletes?

Given the apparent discrepancies in the process of selection for the National Sports Awards, it is time for the Sports Ministry to bring into force the suggestions given by a review committee in 2019.

Rohit Sharma has been recognised for his ever-rising accomplishments with the bat.   -  FILE PHOTO/ AP

President Ram Nath Kovind will present the 2020 National Sports Awards to 60 winners on August 29, with 14 more awardees set to receive their honours at a later date. The awards’ selection committee – in its collective wisdom – made some obvious choices while also leaving out a few deserving names.

An enhanced number of awardees were chosen – five for the Khel Ratna instead of one; 27 for the Arjuna Award against the usual 15. In a rare departure from the norm, Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju had to weigh in to decide whether two Khel Ratna awardees, wrestler Sakshi Malik and weightlifter Mirabai Chanu, could be given the Arjuna Award for their already honoured achievements.

After the committee sent these two names for approval, the minister wisely declined and, in turn, earned accolades of the sports fraternity at large.

Cricketer Rohit Sharma and wrestler Vinesh Phogat made the grade for the Khel Ratna by continuing their fine showing. Sharma was the ICC One-Day International (ODI) Cricketer of the year, thanks mainly to his outstanding batting in the 2019 World Cup, where he hit five centuries. Phogat reinforced her claim by adding a World Championships bronze last year to her 2018 Asian Games silver.

In contrast, the other three winners – Manika Batra, Rani Rampal and Mariyappan Thangavelu – were rewarded for their performances in 2018 and earlier, for which they had already received the Arjuna Award.

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Batra, the pride of India’s 2018 Commonwealth Games campaign, was presented the Arjuna Award (in 2018) for returning with two gold, a silver and a bronze medal from Gold Coast, Australia, and adding an Asian Games mixed doubles bronze later that year. Since then, she has had hardly any international performance to show and has skipped one of the two national championships, taking part in only a few national ranking events.

Rampal, the captain of the Indian women’s hockey team and recipient of the Padma Shri this year, was a member of the runner-up squad at the 2018 Asian Games. Mariyappan’s high-jump gold came at the 2016 Paralympics, and he deservedly got the Padma Shri and the Arjuna Award in 2017.

But if the rule of a four-year assessment window and the performances of Batra and Rampal in 2018 along with the 2016 showing of Mariyappan were considered, then why leave out javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra and shooter Apurvi Chandela?

Chopra, a former world junior javelin champion and a junior world record holder (2016), won the Asian Championships gold in 2017 and also the gold medal at the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games in 2018. Despite missing out on large parts of the subsequent years to injury, Chopra is still ranked among the best in 2020 and occupies the 41st spot in the world’s all-time list!

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Chandela, the winner of two World Cup golds in the 10m air rifle in 2019, continues to hold the world record in the event. World No. 1 for the most of this year, she also won bronze medals at the last Commonwealth and Asian Games.

Double Olympic medallist wrestler Sushil Kumar, who noticed the flaws in the norms, said, “My only request to the government and (selection) committee is that the awards are prestigious and must be given after meticulous decision-making. Players shouldn’t get awards based on a single performance.”

Khel Ratna winners Malik and Chanu applied for the Arjuna Award based on the achievements that already gained them a higher award. The argument put forth by the two was that the rules were silent on whether the Arjuna Award could be given to a Khel Ratna awardee.

The duo also pointed out that in their states – Haryana and Manipur, respectively – the Arjuna was considered for perks and not the Khel Ratna. If this is indeed the case, then the Sports Ministry can direct all states to correct their sports policies and give the Khel Ratna its due for being the country’s highest sports honour.

Though understandable that the committee can't include all worthy names, some world-class performers continue to wait for their well-deserved Arjuna.

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If in carrom the claims of S. Apoorva and Prashant More (both 2016 world champions and 2018 World Cup winners among the women and men, respectively) were tough to contest, in snooker, former world six-red runner-up Kamal Chawla remains without a national honour for the sixth successive year despite winning four world medals and six Asian medals over eight years!

The biggest name to be left out among the Dronacharya awardees was P. T. Usha. For close to a decade and a half, this legendary athlete’s trainees have done consistently well for the country. Notably, Tintu Luka, Jisna Mathew, Aswathi Mohanan, C. Shilpa, Shaharbana Sidhique and Abitha Mary Manuel, among others, have won multiple international medals.

In the race for the awards, there were some lucky names, too. Trupti Murgunde, the 2009 former national badminton champion, was chosen for the Dhyan Chand Award ahead of Manjusha Kanwar and Sanave Thomas.

Murgunde won five gold medals at the SAF Games, including two individual golds, and was also a member of the bronze-winning team at the 2006 Commonwealth Games.

Compatriot Kanwar, a 10-time national champion, won a team bronze at the 1998 Commonwealth Games and also four SAARC/SAF Games team gold medals between 1996 and 2004.

Having formed a durable and effective doubles combination with Rupesh Kumar, Sanave has Commonwealth Games team silver (2010) and bronze (2006), four SAF Games doubles and team gold medals to go with his eight national doubles titles.

Given the apparent discrepancies in the process of selection for the National Sports Awards, it is time for the Sports Ministry to bring into force the suggestions given by a review committee in 2019. Also, a revamped procedure of separating the awards for Olympic, non-Olympic, team, individual, para, indigenous disciplines, et cetera, plus for coaches at different levels, will be a welcome step.

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