New Delhi: The plan was for him to walk in with his entire family. But unable to suppress his excitement, Prakash Padukone walked in alone well ahead of the cue in the banquet hall of the Le Meridian hotel in the national capital.
The occasion was his Lifetime Achievement Award, conferred for the first time by the Badminton Association of India, on the man who changed the face of the sport in the country over three decades ago. But for the 62-year-old, it was an opportunity to meet his friends from his back then, who were all invited for the event, and it was difficult for him to wait for the formalities.
“We are meeting after almost 30 years,” he told this correspondent as he clicked selfies with everyone around, posed for numerous pictures with various groups, requested the photographers to share the pictures, and regaled those present with memories of their playing days.
How much the occasion meant for the first superstar of Indian badminton could be gauged from the fact that he choked a couple of times through his acceptance speech. He spoke about his journey which began in a marriage hall in Mysore and took him to the pinnacle of world badminton, making him the heartthrob of badminton fans all across the globe.
“Its a great honour and I am thankful to the BAI for selecting me for the first award. I hope they continue to honour many more stars who have contributed immensely.... I did not play for money, awards, rewards or to please anyone. I played for the love of the game, my own satisfaction and to see how much I could challenge myself,” he said, in an emotional address. He received the award from Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu in the presence of his wife Ujjala and two daughters – actor Deepika and golfer Anisha.
“I am satisfied with what I have done. I don’t think I could have achieved anything more given the challenges I faced and the lack of facilities then,” he said urging players to think of ways to give back to the game.
“I just want to make one appeal to all the past and present players here. While we are all aware of our rights, it is also our duty to give back to the game. Don’t say what badminton can give you, instead ask what you can do for badminton,” said Padukone, in the presence of the current stars.
He has done his bit as well, launching the Prakash Padukone Academy in 1994 and leading a players’ revolt three years later when the BAI wasn’t willing to address their concerns.
Need pro-active administration
The former All England champion insisted that there was no dearth of talent in India, urging the BAI to be more proactive and create a structure to identify and nurture this talent.
“The goal should be to establish at least one academy in each zone to begin with, and the long term goal should be to have one academy in each state fully funded either by the ministry or BAI. If appropriate systems are put in place, India can be on par with other leading badminton nations of the world. Like China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan and Korea.
However if we do not achieve this, it will not be due to lack of talent in the country. It will be due to other reasons. I hope BAI will keep this in mind while charting the future course of badminton,” he added.
But while he urged the BAI to look ahead, the man himself spent the next few hours reminiscing about the days he spent with fellow players at the national camps and tournaments abroad.
The veterans shared memories, joked around a huge table over dinner. Deepika, who was whisked away by security immediately after the function, returned to the venue a few hours later to greet every member of the group that played with her father.
“It was a very good gesture from BAI to call everyone who had played with me for the function. I am meeting some of them for the first time in over 30 years,” he said.
When asked about what made him so emotional during his acceptance speech, the gentleman that he is, Padukone first apologised for not keeping his emotions in check.
“I dont know why I got emotional, I am sorry about that. I recollected the time when I started playing badminton without there being any facilities for the sport. The game has grown a lot since, and there were tears of joy.
“I only wish I could do something for the players of the older generations who came from smaller towns and could not make it big,” the 62-year-old said.