Neeraj Chopra (top), Arpinder Singh (left) and Rupinder Pal Singh
NEW DELHI: In a year that witnessed an unprecedented five athletes being selected for the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award, it’s difficult to stop questions from being asked, especially when some feel that certain deserving names like Neeraj Chopra for the Khel Ratna and Rupinder Pal Singh and Arpinder Singh for the Arjuna award, for instance, were ignored.
The current rules state that “only one” Khel Ratna should be awarded per year and “not more than 15” Arjuna awards per year are to be given, except under “exceptional circumstances”. These are the norms mentioned in the invitations that are sent out for nomination applications for the Khel Ratna and Arjuna, respectively. But if it became impossible to announce no less than five Khel Ratnas and 27 Arjuna winners (the initial list was 29, before two names were rejected), then it’s hard to fathom why athletes like javelin-thrower Neeraj and triple-jumper Arpinder couldn’t be added under the “exceptional circumstances” category that the rules state could be created to include more than the stipulated number of yearly award winners.
The Sports Ministry announced cricketer Rohit Sharma, wrestler Vinesh Phogat, para-athlete Mariyappan Thangavelu, Manika Batra from table tennis and women’s hockey team captain Rani as this year’s Khel Ratna winners. Besides, a total of 27 athletes will receive the Arjuna award and 13 coaches (eight for lifetime and five in regular category) have been named for the Dronacharya award. Taking the remaining national sports awards into account, there are a total of 73 winners, which is a first.
Five times between 1991 and 2016 (1991-92, 1992-94, 2002, 2009 and 2012) the Khel Ratna was given to two or more athletes in the same year. In 2016, four athletes got it and since then two every year. Five Khel Ratnas in 2020 is unprecedented, which makes it even more baffling to overlook someone like Neeraj.
Though he missed out on participating in the IAAF World Championships last year, Neeraj’s credentials are hard to look past: 2016 world junior champion with a world record, 2016 South Asian Games winner, 2017 Asian Championships winner, 2018 Commonwealth Games gold medallist and 2018 Asian Games gold medallist.
There might be a school of thought that those medals and titles are not enough to win the Khel Ratna, but those who challenge that notion might say that someone like Manika Batra has been named a Khel Ratna winner largely on the basis of her four medals at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and a mixed team bronze at the 2018 Asian Games. Neeraj has gold medals to his name in those tournaments.
Rani has been instrumental in helping the Indian women’s team qualify for two consecutive Olympics (2016 and 2020), but among her notable medals in the last four years is the historic 2018 Asian Games silver and the 2017 Asia Cup gold, which India won after 13 years.
It’s not surprising then that the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) chief, Adille Sumariwala, is feeling disappointed.
“I am highly disappointed,” said Sumariwalla talking to Timesofindia.com. “Neeraj is a (former junior) world champion, he’s a (junior) world record holder, he’s the Asian champion, Commonwealth champion, Asian athletics champion. What more do you want him to do for a Khel Ratna? So, of course, I am disappointed as the (AFI) president.”
Sumariwalla threw his weight behind triple jumper Arpinder as well, for not being considered for the Arjuna award. Arpinder’s coach SS Pannu was given the Dronacharya in 2018, but his ward has been overlooked for the national honour.
Arpinder won a gold medal at the 2018 Asian Games.
“The same goes for Arpinder as well. How is Arpinder different? He is a Commonwealth Games medallist, he’s an Asian Games gold medallist, Continental Cup medallist,” questioned Sumariwalla .
“I don’t lobby…Once we have sent it (nominations), our job is over. We think those are the deserving names, then it’s up to the committee. But if the committee is not considering them, then it’s highly disappointing that deserving people have not got it,” he added.
Arpinder, meanwhile, thanked those who think that he should have been on the list of Arjuna awardees.
“I am thankful to all those who have shown their support and sympathy,” said Arpinder, who is currently at home in Jalandhar, where he is training as well. “It’s surprising that achievements of some have been considered, but not others,” he added to his comment to Timesofindia.com.
Among others to openly express their disappointment was also veteran hockey defender Rupinder Pal Singh.
It has been learnt that Rupinder and striker Akashdeep Singh were the two names from men’s hockey that made it to the final round for Arjuna during the two-day selection committee meeting; but former captain Sardar Singh, who was part of the committee, picked Akashdeep as his choice when asked by the committee’s chairperson, former Supreme Court judge, retired Justice Mukundakam Sharma.
“After a decade of representing the Indian team, I feel disappointed to have missed out on #ArjunaAward. Fortunately, I don’t have much time to cry over this. So, I’ll put my head down, work hard and channel all my frustration towards improving my craft. Onwards and upwards,” tweeted the 29-year-old Rupinder, who endured a long injury layoff following the 2018 Asian Games where India finished with a bronze medal. He is considered one of the best drag-flickers Indian hockey has produced.
Para-badminton star Manasi Joshi expressed similar sentiments, after the reigning world champion and 2018 Asian Para-Games bronze medallist also missed out on the Arjuna award.
“Couldn’t make it to Arjuna award list this year, little disappointed but hoping to strike back next year, stronger and better,” Manasi tweeted.
A look at the point system that came into effect in 2014 makes for an interesting read.
The system awards points based on the medals won in the Olympics, Asian Games, Commonwealth Games, World Championships, World Cups, Asian Championships and Commonwealth Championships. But those pursuing non-Olympic sports or those winning big tournaments like the chess world championships, tennis Grand Slams, snooker or billiards titles or a golf major can’t be given points according to this system. Interestingly, the first recipient of the Khel Ratna was a chess player – Viswanathan Anand in 1991-92, followed by Geet Sethi for Billiards in 1992-93.
Cricket, meanwhile, has consistently seen its top performers being honoured, with Rohit Sharma being the fourth player from the sport to receive the Khel Ratna. That hints towards a fine print in the system, which allows performances out of the ambit of the above-mentioned competitions to be considered and awarded.
Whether the points system will change in the future is anybody’s guess, but the enigma around India’s National Sports Awards still continues.