Editor’s note (September 21, 2018): The Khel Ratna is in the news again, for the wrong reasons, after wrestler Bajrang Punia threatened to take legal action against the Indian government for ignoring him for the country’s highest sporting honour this year.
Punia is not the first sportsperson to cry foul at the government’s choices for the award. The wrestler claimed that he had secured the highest number of points according to the government’s stipulated scoring criteria, but was still ignored. The sportspersons picked for the Khel Ratna this year – cricketer Virat Kohli and weightlifter Mirabai Chanu – both scored fewer points than Punia and others such as Vinesh Phogat, Deepa Malik, Manika Batra, Abhishek Verma and Vikas Krishan.
Kohli, in fact, scored zero points according to the government’s scoring criteria, which does not take cricket into account. How did Kohli, then, be picked for the award? Below is an explainer on the Khel Ratna scoring criteria that The Field had done two years ago, when there was a similar controversy.
Four Indian sportspersons were awarded the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna by President Pranab Mukherjee at Rashtrapati Bhavan on Monday. The Khel Ratna is the highest honour the government of India can bestow upon a sportsperson. Two of the awardees, shuttler PV Sindhu and Sakshi Malik, were medal winners at the recently concluded Rio Olympics, while the other two, Dipa Karmakar and Jitu Rai, are also Olympians who had performed well in Rio but did not get a medal.
Fifteen other sportspersons were given the Arjuna Award, which is India’s second-highest sporting honour, while six coaches received the Dronacharya Award. Apart from these three annual awards, there was also the Dhyan Chand Award for lifetime contribution to sports development.
Okay, so the Dronacharya Award and the Dhyan Chand Award are self-explanatory, but how does the government distinguish between who gets the Khel Ratna and Arjuna Award?
According to the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award is given for “the spectacular and most outstanding performance in the field of sports by a sportsperson over a period of four years”, while the Arjuna Award is given for “consistently outstanding performance for four years.
So, it looks to be a difference between being “spectacular and most outstanding” to being just “outstanding”? That’s a bit vague, isn’t it? Are there any other parameters for differentiating between the two?
None that are publicly available, at least. There is a selection committee for both awards, which decides on the nominations and proposes them to the Sports Ministry, which takes the final decision. The selection committee comprises former awardees, Olympians, sports journalists, experts, commentators and sports administrators.
From past history, let’s just say, to use a cricketing analogy: If you are the Sachin Tendulkar of your sport, you will receive the Khel Ratna, while the Rohit Sharmas get the Arjuna Award.
How many Khel Ratna and Arjuna Awards are given out in a year?
Only one Khel Ratna award is supposed to be given to an individual sportsperson every year, but the condition is relaxed in “exceptional circumstances”, such as 2016. There have also been years – 2008 and 2014 – when the selection committee felt that no one was eligible for the Khel Ratna.
As many as 15 sportspersons can win the Arjuna Award in a year. The number can be exceeded only after “proper justification and approval” of the sports minister.
Who are the sportspersons who have won the Khel Ratna? Have there been other instances when more than one person won the award?
Yes, ever since the first Khel Ratna was given to Viswanathan Anand in 1991-’92, there have been a total of five instances, including 2016, when more than one person was awarded in a year. These are all the winners so far:
Wow, that table looks heavily favoured towards shooters – eight winners in 26 years – and Olympic sports in general. Only two cricketers and tennis players have ever won it, and only one hockey player. Why is that so?
For one, the first time the award was given was in 1991-’92, which was well after Indian hockey’s golden era. Cricketers such as Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev were also too late, or early for that matter, to win it. As for the bias towards Olympic sports, that seems to be because of the scoring criteria.
Every sportsperson is awarded points for their performances over the last four years. As much as 80% weightage is given for medals won in international tournaments such as the Olympics, Asian Games and Commonwealth Games. The remaining 20% weightage is allotted to the marks given by the selection committee to the sportsperson after assessing them “according to the profile and standard of events” in which they have won medals.
If it’s a non-Olympic sport that does not have a medal, like cricket, the selection committee “will take into consideration their individual performances”.
That’s again very vague, isn’t it, for a non-Olympic sport? Are there any notable names who have missed out because of this?
Yes. Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly, Anil Kumble, and Mahesh Bhupathi come to mind.
Wow! Isn’t that...strange? These four have achieved so much in their careers. Dravid has scored 24,208 runs in his international career, Ganguly has 18,575 and was one of India’s best captains, Kumble is the country’s highest wicket-taker (956 across all formats) and Bhupathi has won 12 majors. Is that not enough to win a Khel Ratna?
Apparently not. Perhaps there was someone who had achieved more than them in the eyes of the selection committee if and when they were considered, or perhaps they never put in a “spectacular and most outstanding performance” over a period of four years. However, that’s not true in Bhupathi’s case at least. He won five majors between 1999 and 2002.
Even if that was the case, could they not have given them the award in the years they felt no one deserved it?
They could have, but that would have gone against the selection criteria for that particular year. Now, the only way they can win the award is posthumously.
Okay then. So what do the awardees receive? A trophy? A medal? Cash? A government job?
If you win the Khel Ratna, you receive a medal, a “certificate of honour” and a cash prize of Rs 7.5 lakh, which is exempt from Income Tax and Wealth Tax. Arjuna, Dronacharya and Dhyan Chand awardees get statuettes, certificates and Rs 5 lakh each.
Rs 7.5 lakh? That’s it? Didn’t PV Sindhu get Rs 5 crore from the Telengana government itself?
Yes. She also got Rs 3 crore from the Andhra Pradesh government and Rs 2 crore from the Delhi government. Sakshi Malik got Rs 2.5 crore from the Haryana government.
In fact, the Khel Ratna cash prize used to originally be Rs 1 lakh. It was then revised to Rs 3 lakh in 2000, to Rs 5 lakh in 2002, and finally to Rs 7.5 lakh in 2009. So it’s risen by only Rs 6.5 lakh over 26 years.
It seems state governments are either richer, or more generous, or politically savvier compared to the Union government.