Over the years, the national sports awards and controversies have gone hand in hand. Time and again, the sports ministry has tried to streamline the process and make it more transparent but that has hardly reduced the feeling of being ‘deprived’ among athletes.
On the contrary, the discontent has grown since the points system was introduced in 2014 which was put in place to ensure fair play and a level playing field. However, the same points system is now a tool in the hands of disgruntled athletes and coaches who show it as a proof of their merit and even move court based on it.
Not that the athletes can be entirely blamed for the mess. Sweat, tears and years of toil, an Indian athlete surpasses many obstacles to win a medal for the country. When the recognition they think truly deserve doesn’t come their way, they feel letdown. That’s how Bajrang Punia must be feeling now. Born in a family of meagre means in a small Haryana village Khudan, he is now one of the biggest names of Indian wrestling.
But instead of focussing on his next goal of winning an Olympic berth, the youngster is peeved at being denied Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna and has pointed out that he has more points than weightlifter Mirabai Chanu and India cricket captain Virat Kohli, the two chosen for the country’s highest sporting honour this year.
Going strictly by the points system, Bajrang definitely has a case to fight. Winner of gold medals at the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games, Bajrang has 80 points to Mirabai’s 44 on paper. In fact, by this logic, Vinesh Phogat (80 points) too has every right to stake a claim for Khel Ratna.
A tall task indeed
So how did the awards committee come to the conclusion that only Mirabai and Kohli deserve the Khel Ratna?
The 12-member awards selection panel, headed by (Retd) Delhi High Court Judge Justice Indermeet Kaul Kochhar, was handed a document by the sports ministry running into several pages with names of Arjuna and Khel Ratna candidates alongside points. There were 98 names for Arjuna and 24 for Khel Ratna.
“We received the document just the night before the meeting on September 17. There was hardly any time left,” said a member of the panel on condition of anonymity.
The members felt it was impossible to trim down the two lists on the basis of points and therefore a brainstorming happened for three hours. Also, they felt the points system in itself was not foolproof and there were several factors that needed to be taken into account during the four-year cycle.
System not foolproof
The points system lists Olympics/Paralympics, World Championships/World Cup, Asian Games and Commonwealth Games. What about tournaments that happen round the year?
In racquet sports (tennis, badminton, squash), Grand Slams, Superseries, and PSA World Tour events find no mention in the points system. Or cricket, which is not an Olympic sport but by far the most popular sport in the country. Then there are World Championships in certain sports where the draw is no more than 16 and clearing two rounds itself ensures a medal.
As per the criteria laid down for Khel Ratna, ‘80 percent weightage’ will be on the basis of points system and ‘20 percent weightage’ will be given to the marks awarded by the selection committee for assessment of the eligible sportsperson, keeping in view factors like profile and standard of the sports events in which he or she has won medals.
The panelists felt they have to take a holistic view of each discipline and medals won at various events to come to a conclusion.
Cricket is not an Olympic sport and is not included in the points system. In such instances, the ‘discretion’ of the panel mattered. Kohli has been missing out on Khel Ratna for the last two years.
“You cannot deprive Virat because he is a cricketer. He has been performing consistently. He is a role model. The pressure a cricketer is under to perform is immense. We cannot quantify such things,” said the member.
Among the Khel Ratna candidates, only Mirabai had a World Championship gold medal which she won in 2017. “It was felt her weightage will be much more only on that basis,” the member said.
The third athlete in real contention was Kidambi Srikanth, who had a fabulous run in 2017 with four Superseries titles. “How can you neglect his performance just because Superseries events are in points system.”
Eventually Mirabai and Virat were chosen for the award. “It was a transparent selection.”
Panel to recommend changes
In fact, the members of the panel will recommend broad basing the selection criteria and not put too much weightage on the points system. The points system too has to include several parameters to make it more comprehensive.