Every year, at least 15 athletes win the Arjuna Award but only a handful are household names. The Field is kicking off a new series – Know your Arjuna Awardee – where we will profile some of the lesser known athletes who have won India’s second most prestigious sporting honour.

Almost a year after bagging a bronze medal at the Rio Paralympics, high-jumper Varun Singh Bhati repeated his heroics at the World Para-Athletics Championships in London last month, finishing third again.

With that, Bhati capped a solid medal-winning run in the last three years, starting with a gold at the 2014 China Open Athletics Championship. He then finished fifth at the 2015 World Para-Athletics Championships in Doha, before setting a new Asian record at the 2016 Athletics Asia-Oceania Championships, where he also won gold.

Bhati was among four Indian medallists at the Rio Paralympics. It was no surprise then that the Uttar Pradesh-based para-athlete, who was born with a deformity in his left leg, has been nominated for the Arjuna Award, India’s second-most prestigious sporting honour, this year.

In a chat with The Field, Bhati said that he was initially expecting the Khel Ratna, the highest sporting honour in the country, as promised by Sports Minister Vijay Goel last year, before his coach Satyanarayana convinced him that winning the Arjuna Award first was better for him.

“Vijay Goel had said that Paralympic medallists would be considered for Khel Ratna,” the 22-year-old said. “However, I am happy with the Arjuna Award because once you get the Khel Ratna, you cannot win the Arjuna Award. My coach told me that I am still young and I have time to win the Khel Ratna in the future, so I am very happy to be nominated for the Arjuna Award. It’s quite satisfying that my achievements are being recognised and praised by the government.”

Goel had attracted controversy last year when he initially said that there was no policy in place for Paralympians to win the Khel Ratna. After realising that this was not the case, Goel had retracted his statement and said that Paralympians would be nominated for the Khel Ratna the following year.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (centre) with India's four Rio Paralympics medallists (from left): Mariyappan Thangavelu, Deepa Malik, Devendra Jhajharia and Varun Bhati (Image: IANS)

Earlier this month, it was announced that two-time Paralympic gold medallist Devendra Jhajharia had been recommended for the Khel Ratna, along with former India hockey captain Sardar Singh. Bhati and Rio Paralympic gold medallist Mariyappan Thangavelu, also a high-jumper, were among the recommendations for the Arjuna Award. India’s only other medallist at the Rio Paralympics, Deepa Malik, had already won the Arjuna Award in 2012, and was not considered for the Khel Ratna.

The 22-year-old was thrilled for javelin-thrower Jhajharia, 36, who broke his own world record at Rio to win his second Paralympic gold, after Athens 2004. “Devendra bhaiyya is the first para-athlete to be recommended for the Khel Ratna and he totally deserves it,” Bhati said. “He has won two golds [in the Paralympics] and broken the world record twice. The decision to give him the Khel Ratna will definitely serve as a morale boost for other para-athletes.”

Boost for para-athletes

Almost a year since Rio, Bhati believes that India’s performance at the 2016 Paralympics has finally got people talking about para-athletes. “I think almost half the people who have heard about Paralympics today did not know about it prior to Rio,” he said. “The media has also supported us since Rio, which wasn’t the case earlier. This is definitely taking forward the Paralympic movement in India.”

Bhati was lucky since his father, who is the sarpanch of a village in UP, always backed his son’s decision to play sports despite his disability. He was first spotted by coaches at the St Joseph’s School in Greater Noida, before he came under the wings of Satyanarayana, a former national athlete. “I used to play basketball in my early days at school so it was easy for me to make the transition to high jump,” Bhati had said in an earlier interview with Sportskeeda.

While Bhati, who is supported by the GoSports Foundation, is thankful to the Indian government for treating Indian Paralympians on par with the Olympians, he believes upcoming para-athletes in the country need to be playing in more tournaments to take them to the next level. While senior para-athletes are sorted because they participate regularly in international tournaments, Bhati said that upcoming prospects who are just starting out “should be playing at least two or three tournaments every year so that they get exposure”.

Bhati called for more para-athletic competitions in India, especially at district- and state-level. “Children should be motivated to join sports,” he said. “There should be a grassroots para-athletic movement in India.”

Since Rio, Bhati competed in the national championships, where he won gold, and then at the world championships last month, where he got the bronze. Currently recovering from an injury, Bhati will next set his sights on the Asian Games next year.

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