Asian Games champions Bajrang Punia and Vinesh Phogat are in contention for India’s highest sporting honour, Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award following their recent wins.

It has been learnt that Bajrang has already filed his nomination through the Wrestling Federation of India while Vinesh is likely to be considered by the Sports Ministry, a source in the Wrestling Federation of India was quoted as saying PTI.

Sports Minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore is expected to analyse the Indian athletes’ performance in the Asian Games in the first week of September. The ministry is then likely make its recommendations for the National Sports Awards to the selection committee, which will be finalised in the next few days.

Every year, the National Sports Awards ceremony is held on August 29 at the Rashtrapati Bhawan to commemorate the birth anniversary of hockey legend Major Dhyan Chand as the National Sports Day.

But in a departure from tradition, the this year’s ceremony has been shifted to September 25 to avoid a clash of dates with the ongoing Asian Games and ensure maximum participation of athletes. “Bajrang has filled his form for the Khel Ratna Award through the federation and he is a deserving candidate for the award after his brilliant performances in CWG and Asiad. We don’t know whether Vinesh has filled the form on her own or not but she can be considered by the Ministry,” a WFI official told PTI.

“Both Bajrang and Vinesh are strong contenders for the Khel Ratna Award and it won’t be surprise for us if both win.”

A Sports Ministry official said that Bajrang and Vinesh are strong contenders for the award along with already-nominated India cricket captain Virat Kohli. Star javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra has also emerged as a strong contender after winning gold medals in the Commonwealth and the Asian Games.

Chopra has also been nominated for the Arjuna Award and was the flagbearer of the Indian contingent during the opening ceremony of the ongoing Asian Games. “Bajrang and Vinesh’s performances in both the Commonwealth and Asian Games have been exceptional, especially in the Asian Games where the level of competition in wrestling is very high,” the Ministry official was quoted as saying.

“Both Bajrang and Vinesh’s names were not in the entries received by the Ministry by April 30 cut-off date but we will have a review meeting of the Asian Games medal winners soon and the Ministry can recommend some eligible candidates to the existing list to the selection committee.”

“Not just Bajrang and Vinesh, there were many other great performances from our athletes in the Asian Games and they will be considered as well,” he added.

Vinesh, the 2016 Arjuna awardee, achieved a rare feat in Jakarta when she became the first Indian woman wrestler to win a gold in the Asian Games. Vinesh is also a two-time Commonwealth Games gold medallist, having won back-to-back titles in 2014 and 2018. She had also won a bronze medal in the 2014 Asian Games.

Bajrang too won gold medals in Gold Coast and Asian Games this year. He also has a World Championship bronze in 2013 besides winning silver medals in the 2014 Incheon Asian Games and Glasgow Commonwealth Games.

The highest number of athletes to be conferred with the Khel Ratna in a calendar year is four when PV Sindhu, Sakshi Malik, Dipa Karmakar and Jitu Rai received the honour in 2016. The Arjuna Award, next in the pecking order, has been given to a maximum of 17 athletes in a single year so far.

(With inputs from PTI)