This has become an annual affair. No, not the national sports awards function, but the controversies associated with the selection of the awardees.

No matter, how much the Union Sports Ministry has attempted to bring in transparency in the selection process, no matter how fair it might be made out to be, eventually there is only one refrain. “These awards are politicised; you need to push your case, you need to have contacts.”

This might well be exaggeration since we should not brand all the eminent people sitting on the awards panel as men and women incapable of taking an unbiased, honest decision based on facts and figures and logical thinking. Yet, public perception – and largely that of the media – is this “awards business” is scandalous, we need to revise the whole system.

The Government hasn’t helped matters, almost constantly tinkering with the system, processes and composition of selection panels. It has also repeatedly relaxed rules regarding the period to be considered for eligibility calendar year and the number of awardees each year.

The ‘Rachna Govil controversy’

The result has been controversies and litigation. Asian discus champion Anil Kumar challenged the selection of athlete Rachna Govil and gymnast Kalpana Debnath for the Arjuna award in 2001 in the Delhi High Court, which then observed, “Sportspersons who have excelled in their playing career... Someone like Ramanathan Krishnan, Prakash Padukone or Sunil Gavaskar who are household names, should figure in the selection committee.’’

There was just one sportsperson in the panel then, the president of the Arjuna Awardees Association.

The “Rachna Govil controversy” saw the great Milkha Singh turning down a “belated” Arjuna Award for “lifetime contribution”.

“I have been clubbed with sportspersons who are nowhere near the level that I had achieved,” Milkha was quoted as saying. It was unfortunate that he was chosen 36 years after his historic Rome Olympics feat of finishing fourth in the 400 metres. The misery for the legend was piled on when alongside him, others of lesser caliber were also included for “lifetime contribution.”

‘‘It is of no use giving such awards to such persons who might produce one freak performance during their lifetime,’’ Milkha said at that time. He also alleged that athletes took drugs to perform better at home but were exposed in international competitions abroad since they would be tested in such meets. Sixteen years later, that observation is still very much relevant today.

Milkha Singh. Image Credit: ANDREW COWIE / AFP

The controversy led to the Sports Ministry ordering a revamp of the panels. More sportspersons were brought in and the emphasis was on performance in “international competitions”.

Padukone chaired the 2002 panel which also adopted a points system for determining the awardees for the first time. The system was flawed. It gave points for participation in Olympics, World Championships, World Cups, Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and Asian Championships. Theoretically, it was possible for an athlete winning an Asian Games bronze and an Asian championships bronze to edge an Olympic silver medallist! It was explained the points would only be considered in the event of a tie in selection. We don’t know whether it was implemented in that fashion. It was discarded next year.

With the Padukone committee came the trend of having a panel of eminent sportspersons headed by one of them. This was a good move, but one not beyond criticism. The damage seemed to have been done by changing the concept of the Arjuna Award. Instead of a long period of time, it became one meant for achievements during a four-year cycle, the year in question plus the preceding three.

Dhyan Chand award, the alternative

Controversies continued to dog the awards selection. Despite excellent credentials, high jumper Bobby Aloysius was overlooked for the Arjuna Award in 2002, 2003 and 2004. She never got it, quit the sport in disgust, and later took a qualification in coaching in an England university. She had an Asian Games silver and an Asian gold to show by 2003, and yet was ignored.

For the past few years, Aloysius had been “applying” for the Dhyan Chand award, instituted in 2002 following the “Milkha uproar”. The award is essentially to honour those left out of the Arjuna Award selection.

“They are honouring athletes who have won medals in Asian track and field, not those in Asian Games”, said Aloysius recently.

High Jumper Bobby Aloysius. Image Credit: Jason Reed / Reuters

Everyone knows Asian Games is a far tougher competition than the Asian Championships.

“Why should an Asian Games medal be outdated?” Aloysius posed. “What is this rule of Arjuna Award being only for a particular year’s achievement or for three or four years? That means they are saying you happened to have won gold or silver in a particular year, it is now gone out of the timeline, now we will award bronze medallists.”

The Arjuna Award used to be for achievements during a sportspeson’s career. By revising the rules in 2002 and restricting it to a particular set of years, the drafting committee did great injustice to several of our outstanding sportspersons. Now they have to “apply” for Dhyan Chand award (to gain recognition denied to them) and hope for the best.

Legal recourse

Court cases have aggravated the problem for the Sports Ministry during the past few years. The most embarrassing one was when boxer Manoj Kumar went to court and brought to its notice an “erroneous dope charge” against him that robbed him of the award.

The National sports award rules state that those who have been penalised for a doping offence would not be considered for the award. Manoj was mistakenly identified as an “offender” while it was his namesake who had been punished.

The Kapil Dev-headed selection panel refused to budge despite meeting for a second time to reconsider the decision to reject Manoj’s name. The boxer was left with no option but to approach the Delhi High Court which ordered that the award be bestowed on him. The committee later explained that it had rightly chosen another boxer for the award and there was no ‘doping angle’ to it.

Another man denied the award because of a doping charge was triple jumper Renjith Maheswary in 2014, after he was summoned to Delhi and asked to get ready to receive the award. He too went to court but did not get relief. He had argued that an old doping charge against him had not carried any suspension and it happened to have been for a stimulant, a minor offence.

Return of the flawed point system

From 2014 onwards, based on a court’s ruling that there had to be some method to assess and tabulate a sportsperson’s performance and achievements, the Sports Ministry brought back the points system by which marks were given for achievements in major championships. It was announced that medallists in Olympic Games and Paralympics would automatically be “considered” for the Khel Ratna or Arjuna Awards, if they have already not been bestowed the honour. This has just added to the confusion surrounding the selection. The Paralympians were given the impression last year the medallists in Rio would get Khel Ratna. With only one getting it this year, there is fresh debate.

The points system, tried out in 2002, is once again terribly flawed. The person or persons who drew up the points chart apparently have no clue about the difference between World Cup in says archery or shooting, and World Athletics Championships or World Swimming Championships.

For World Championships which are held once in less than four years (athletics, for example, is held biennially) “proportionate” marks (to the one given for four-year championships) are to be given. Quite arbitrary it would turn out to be. Ambiguity comes in and the issue may get blown out of proportion.

Thus, an Asian Games bronze would fetch 20 marks while a similar-coloured medal in a World Athletics Championships may get only ten marks. This is a laughable system. Just imagine, India has won 299 bronze medals in the Asian Games since 1951 according to Wikipedia, but just one in World Athletics, that by long jumper Anju Bobby George in 2003.

Talking of George, she was duly selected for the Khel Ratna in 2003 (chosen and awarded in 2004) despite the fact that double trap shooter Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore had by then won India’s first ever individual silver medal in the Olympic Games.

July-August are the months for Olympic Games, but by then the national sports awards are already determined. The ministry resisted the temptation of giving the Khel Ratna to Rathore in 2004. Instead, rightly, it chose George. But in subsequent years, the ministry plumped for “popular sentiments” and made concessions about final date for nominations as well as the number of Khel Ratna awardees.

Anju Bobby George with her Khel Ratna. Image Credit: RAVI RAVEENDRAN / AFP

The Kapil Dev-headed committee made several good suggestions in 2014 including the need to restrict the Arjuna Award to just 15 athletes every year. Year after year the ministry succumbs to pressure and allows an increase in number of awardees. This has to stop to bring back the prestige that the Arjuna Award once carried. Today the cash awards associated with the national sports awards seem to attract several claimants. Arjuna and Dronacharya carry Rs 5 lakh each, Khel Ratna Rs 7.5 lakh.

The Kapil Dev panel recommended three more sportspersons on the committee. Today, four sportspersons and three sports journalists dominate the panel apart from two Government officers, SAI DG and Joint Secretary, Sports.

Too many questions

Why should there be so many sports journalists in a committee that a court had said should ideally contain sportspersons, is something only the ministry can explain. Perhaps it is an attempt to minimise criticism in the media, though that has not happened.

Should some 48 sports for which the National Federations have been recognised by the Government, on the last count, be considered for the awards or should they be restricted to around 25 or 30 sports on the programme of the Olympic Games, Asian Games and Commonwealth Games, plus some indigenous sports?

Should Paralympians be considered on par with others when it comes to Khel Ratna? Or should there be a separate Khel Ratna for them in the Olympic year? These are issues the Government will need to study seriously in the coming years if there has to be fairness.

This year, Paralympian Devendra Jhajharia has been jointly awarded the Khel Ratna with hockey Olympian Sardar Singh. In the meantime, Paralympian silver medallist, Deepa Malik has staked her claim after news broke about the committee’s recommendations. Surprisingly, the gold winner in Rio Paralympics, high jumper Mariyappan Thangavelu seems to have been contented with the Arjuna Award.

Jhajharia has said the honour has come too late while the choice of Sardar Singh, embroiled in a police case in London, is being questioned since there is a clear provision in the rules that those involved in doping cases and criminal charges would not be considered. Reports have suggested that Sardar’s name has been recommended by the committee but the ministry has put a rider on his choice.

The Ministry should avoid recommending names beyond the deadline. It would be better to remove altogether the power of the Sports Ministry to recommend names, since a plethora of individuals and institutions, apart from state governments etc, are eligible to make recommendations.

Sticking to numbers would be important. Khel Ratna originally was just one award for the most outstanding performance of a year. Now it could be three or four. In future it maybe even six!

In the 1960s through to the 1980s, being an Arjuna Award winner was considered prestigious. Today, the Arjuna and Dronacharya awards are most devalued in a system that is prone to manipulation. Khel Ratna may soon join these two national awards in matter of erosion of prestige.