Miss the gold for the spiritless rush
Based on the numbers alone, you can tell that a lot has been done well to prepare our athletes for the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Probably a lot more care and effort went into their return with exhausting and endless congratulations and public celebrations. But when the time came to present these athletes with the country’s two highest sporting accolades, the Arjuna Prize and the newly renamed Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna, it seemed that nothing had been done to iron out the flaws in the accolades.
In 2020, a non-Olympic season, a year when much of it saw no sporting activity, there were five new Khel Ratnas (up from one or two rare winners a year before 2020) and 27 Arjuna winners. This year, 11 names were recommended for the highest sporting honor and 32 for the Arjuna Prize.
But as the country has started to step up the pace of its sporting prowess, the benchmark for national awards must also be raised. If an athlete can be prepared and trained to beat the best in the world, then a national award – which is not influenced by any outside matter but is designed solely by the Indian government – can be changed to recognize the best.
Neeraj Chopra, in many ways, was the best this year and perhaps the only real contender for Khel Ratna.
Consider the fact that before his big javelin throw in Tokyo, the only Olympic track and field medal India ever won were the two silver medals Norman Pritchard won at the 1900 Games in Paris. A good 121 years later, a 23-year-old from Haryana won just the second gold in an individual event, and a first in track and field for India.
There is nothing to take away from the accomplishments that the other 10 on the list have achieved. In addition to Sunil Chhetri and Mithali Raj, the remaining candidates stepped onto the podium at the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.
The wrestling Ravi Dahiya’s money came in a discipline in which India has a rich history. Lovlina Borgohain’s boxing medal mirrored the bronze Vijender Singh (Beijing 2008) and Mary Kom (London 2012) had won earlier.
The men’s hockey team ending a 41-year-old draft is commendable, but the fact is India has always won gold in the sport. From now on, the Khel Ratna will only be awarded to PR Sreejesh in a team sport, where Harmanpreet Singh was recently declared FIH player of the year (but will only get the Arjuna this year).
Meanwhile, the five gold medalists at the Paralympic Games receive the highest honor, but all in sports where India has a rich history or has already won gold medals. And where several categories clarify the participation.
Chopra is however the only pioneer.
We must not hide from the fact that despite Chopra’s best efforts and this being our richest booty, India is still a vastly underperforming nation at the Olympics. Therefore, it is reasonable to recognize and reward the achievements of those who reached the podium in Tokyo. But that too must have a clear reasoning. And it must be fair.
If Dahiya and Borgohain, respectively silver and bronze medalists, receive the honor of a Khel Ratna with his cash prize of Rs 25 lakh, why shouldn’t the silver and bronze medalists at the Paralympic Games also receive this honor?
Why is it that only the gold medalists at the Paralympic Games receive the Khel Ratna and not the eight silver medalists and the five bronze medalists? Bhavina Patel’s historic silver medal at the Paralympic Table Tennis Games – where she beat the defending champion in the quarterfinals, then world number 3 and a top favorite from China in the semifinals – worthy of the award Arjuna, for whom she was appointed, and not the Khel Ratna?
Why were all members of the men’s hockey team nominated for the Arjuna Award, and Sreejesh the Khel Ratna, when only Vandana Katariya and Monika Malik from the women’s team were put on the Arjuna roster? Is it because the women’s team finished fourth – their best at the Games – and the men won bronze (despite winning five gold medals after independence)?
In the world of sport, where one strives for success on an equal footing, at least national awards should be awarded on the basis of the same criteria.
The two “odd” in Khel Ratnas’ list this year are the only non-Olympians – Chhetri (football) and Raj (cricket). However, they are by no means worthy award winners – maybe another year.
For years, Chhetri has been the only most proficient servant in Indian football. Why is he recognized for this honor at the age of 37? Why is Raj, the only woman to complete 7,000 ODI races, considered for the prize at 38?
Both are worthy of this honor and should have been awarded years ago. The panel which decides on the winners would surely not have ignored their achievements.
In a country where every medal comes at a price, the least you can do is honor the right people at the right time. And promote excellence.