Javelin-thrower and Rio Paralympics gold medalist Devendra Jhajharia is set to become the first Indian para-athlete to win the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna, the country’s most prestigious sporting honour. The 36-year-old’s name was recommended along with former India captain Sardar Singh, by an awards selection committee. If the Sports Ministry approves, which it should, it will be a landmark decision.
Jhajharia spoke to The Field minutes after he was informed that his name had been recommended. While he said he is thrilled with the news, the 36-year-old added that he would have been happier had he won the award 12 years ago, after the Athens Paralympics where he had also won gold.
“It gives me great happiness to become India’s first para-athlete to win the Khel Ratna,” Jhajharia said. “But it would have been even greater had I won it in 2005 after winning the gold and breaking the world record at the Athens Paralympics. So, it’s a bit late but I am happy nonetheless.”
Jhajharia is winning the award a year after he became the only Indian to win two individual gold medals at the Olympics or Paralympics. His attempt of 63.97 metres at the Rio Paralympics eclipsed his own world record of 62.15 metres set in Athens in 2004. Back then, he had obliterated the old world record by a margin of 2.38 metres.
India produced four medalists at the Rio Paralympics, compared with two at the Olympics. While the Olympic medalists – PV Sindhu (silver) and Sakshi Malik (bronze) – were awarded the Khel Ratna last year itself, along with fellow Olympians Dipa Karmakar and Jitu Rai, the four Paralympic medalists only received cash prizes from the government.
Sports Minister Vijay Goel had even said last year that there were no policies in place for Paralympians to receive the Khel Ratna. However, a document on the website of the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports does make it amply clear that achievements at the Paralympics are indeed to be considered for the Khel Ratna.
Two years ago, 2012 London Paralympics silver medallist HN Girisha had also criticised the government for not considering him for the Khel Ratna in 2012, when Sania Mirza was the awardee. Girisha had said that he was the top contender for the award according to the Sports Ministry’s performance-based points system.
However, the government seems to have had a change of heart this year. The awards selection committee has also added the names of Rio Paralympics gold medalist Mariyappan Thangavelu and bronze winner Varun Bhati to the list of Arjuna awardees. Till last year, only 15 athletes could get the Arjuna Award. This year, it is 15 plus two para-athletes.
“I am very thankful to the government for including para-athletes in the awards list this year,” said Jhajharia. “Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also asked people to refer to differently-abled people as divyang (humans with divine abilities) and not viklang (handicapped). We get a lot of motivation from such moves.”
Jhajharia also said that while winning awards always feels good, it wasn’t his ultimate goal. “Winning awards is one thing, playing for the country is another,” he said. “My main goal is to play to my best abilities and win medals for the country. If you perform well, the government awards you, and with that your confidence gets a boost. Your responsibilities also increase. By winning the Khel Ratna, my responsibility towards the country will increase even more.”
Jhajharia was also glad that there has been a change in perception in India regarding para-athletes in the last year. “After Rio, there has been a big change in India,” he said. “Everybody knows about para-sports now. A culture has been developed for para-sports and this is a big thing. The government has also included para-sports in the Target Olympic Podium Scheme and that’s great.”
The Modi government had formulated the TOP scheme in 2015 with the objective of “identifying and supporting potential medal prospects” for the 2016 and 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. The scheme covers 12 disciplines – archery, athletics, badminton, boxing, shooting, wrestling, sailing, gymnastics, swimming, lawn tennis, para athletics and para swimming.
Jhajharia is currently training for the Asian Games next year. By the time the Tokyo Paralympics come around in 2020, he will be 39 years old. However, that hardly matters to him. “I hope to do well in Tokyo and return with a medal,” he said.