Devendra Jhajharia may be India’s greatest athlete ever, Olympian or Paralympian. At the 2004 Summer Paralympics in Athens, he won the javelin throw competition with a distance of 62.15 metres, setting a new world record in the process, obliterating the old one by a margin of 2.38 metres.
Jhajharia became only the second Indian athlete to win an individual gold medal at the Olympics or the Paralympics, after para-swimmer Murlikant Petkar in 1972. Unfortunately for Jhajharia, the F46 classification – defined by the International Paralympic Committee as one for para-athletes with “upper limb/s affected by limb deficiency, impaired muscle power or impaired range of movement” – for the javelin throw was absent for the next two Paralympics.
After his class was re-instated in 2013, Jhajharia had a chance to win Paralympic gold in Rio, 12 years after the first had arrived. The 35-year old did not disappoint and duly delivered. He became the only Indian to win two individual gold medals at the Olympics or Paralympics, recording an attempt of 63.97 metres, eclipsing his own record set in Athens.
The Sports Minister’s vacillation
India won four medals at the Rio Paralympics – two gold, one silver and a bronze. When first asked if the Indian medallists at this year’s Paralympic Games would receive the Khel Ratna, Union Sports Minister Vijay Goel had said that there were no policies in place for Paralympians receiving India's highest honour for sportspersons.
Goel’s statement was, at best, ill-informed and, at worst, showed his knowledge about one of his ministry’s own highest honours. Unless there is another policy that we are not aware of, the Khel Ratna document on the website of the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports does make it amply clear that the Paralympics are indeed to be considered for the Khel Ratna. Perhaps, the word “Paralympics” should be marked in bold for Goel and his incompetent posse so that they don’t miss it the next time they read the policy.
After facing backlash on social media for yet another gaffe – something Goel has experienced regularly over the last two months, he went on to strike a conciliatory tone, saying the Paralympic medallists and para-athletes would be considered for the Khel Ratna from next year.
In reality, Goel had made a mess of the situation, without having a clue as to the policy put forward by his own ministry, amended by them and accessible on their website. Goel was possibly referring to the standard practice, but that raises further questions – despite being included in the policy, have Paralympians been ignored for the award all this while?
Even 2016 Paralympics silver medallist Deepa Malik couldn’t help bringing the issue up.
Earlier, Goel had said that the Khel Ratna policy would have to be amended to include the Paralympians but criteria 1 and 2 stated above show that an amendment is not required. Even if a change was required as stated by Goel, the policy did allow for an authority to relax or modify the circumstances under which an athlete could receive the Khel Ratna. Unfortunately for the Paralympians, the concerned authority in this case was none other than Goel himself.
The distribution of the Khel Ratna awards on the basis of a vague policy, after the Olympics but before the Paralympics, is proof enough of the fact that Paralympians were not considered for this year’s awards.
The Paralympians might not get an exemption from the “policy” for the Khel Ratna award, but policy-makers have inserted carefully worded-exemptions taking into account the political and financial clout of cricket (the Board for Control of Cricket in India is not one of the National Sports Federations, to which the policy is primarily applicable) – a game played at Test level by a mere 10 nations.
Two cricketers have won the award till date, Sachin Tendulkar in 1997-’98 and Mahendra Singh Dhoni in 2007. This time too, the BCCI sent in Virat Kohli’s nomination for the Khel Ratna.
The BCCI behaves like a pseudo-federation in this regard, but still refuses to come under the ambit of the Right to Information act, all the while claiming it is an independent body, in a remarkable display of its double standards.
One more important point to ponder: if the BCCI is not recognised as a federation by the ministry and does not recognise itself as a federation, why does the ministry insist on giving cricket a place alongside all its other federations in this matter?
The answer is simple: the awards have become a popularity contest.
Calculation? What calculation?
With all the fancy criteria in place, one would be tempted to think that the process of awarding the Khel Ratna would be fool-proof. Not a chance. Despite the 12 criteria in the policy, the award it would seem has been handed out quite arbitrarily.
This is not to say that Sania Mirza, awardee in 2015, and Sakshi Malik, PV Sindhu, Dipa Karmakar and Jitu Rai, all conferred in 2016, don’t deserve it.
Mirza is India’s most successful woman in tennis, both in the singles and doubles categories. While Malik and Sindhu won medals in Rio, Karmakar must be credited for revolutionising the gymnastics scene in a country when there was no scene to begin with and Jitu Rai, barring the Olympics, has been remarkably consistent – winning individual gold at the 2014 Incheon Asian Games, the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games and five medals in shooting world cups and championships in 2014 and 2015.
But if the central criterion does specify scoring parameters, perhaps the experts at the sports ministry should consider it as well, apart from the usual gut-and-feel approach. Applying it to the Olympians shows us that shuttler Sindhu is at the top of the charts, with 115 points – 70 for an Olympic silver, 20 for a World Championship bronze in 2014, 10 as she was part of a six-member team that won the Asian bronze at Incheon and 15 for a Commonwealth bronze.
Mirza might be considered a tad unlucky as tennis has no World Cups/Championships. The policy also states that “For World Championship/World Cup of different periodicities, proportionate marks will be given.” Since the proportions are not specified, we have taken into account the athlete’s best World Championship performance in the four-year evaluation cycle, 2013-2016.
This may make you think: Three of the four awarded are at the very top so what’s the big deal? It’s a comparison between able-bodied athletes and similarly deserving para-athletes for four years of hard labour.
Paralympic high-jumper HN Girisha had made a similar point in 2015, when he was overlooked despite having the highest number of points compared to anyone yet to receive the award – 90, with silver at the 2012 Paralympics and bronze at the Incheon 2014 Para-Asian games. Girisha had moved the Karnataka High Court against Mirza’s Khel Ratna award, stating that he deserved it more than her.
Sindhu wasn’t the most qualified to receive the award because there is another man at the top of the standings. If you guessed Devendra Jhajharia – you were spot on. Jhajharia leads the way with 135 points – Paralympic gold in Rio, gold in IPC World Championships at Lyon in 2013 and silver at the Incheon Asian Games.
The para-athletes have done much better over the evaluation period and have some impressive numbers to show for it. The five sports played at the 2014 Glasgow Para-Commonwealth Games are Athletics, Swimming, Powerlifting, Lawn Bowls and Track Cycling, while Badminton – one with a really strong Indian contingent that won 11 medals at the para-world Championships in 2015 – isn’t a Paralympics sport.
The next highest on the list, Sharath Gayakwad, broke a 28-year-old record in Incheon in 2014 when he became the first athlete from India to win six medals at the Asian Games, surpassing PT Usha’s 1986 Seoul Games haul of five medals.
Drawing up a comparison of the best athletes and the para-athletes, it is clear to see that Para-athletes dominate the top of the Khel Ratna points system. Devendra Jhajharia is on top and his fellow Paralympic medallists Deepa Malik and Mariyappan Thangavelu are not far behind.
The Paralympians will hope that recognition is given soon where it is fully deserved – policy or not. After showering our able-bodied athletes with riches, cars and what not, it is time for politicians and “well-wishers” to stand up and take notice of Paralympic performances, and stop beating around the policy bush.