It felt odd to see Sakshi Malik, who was the recipient of the Khel Ratna (India’s highest sports award) in 2016, cry foul over the Sports Ministry’s decision to exclude her from the list of Arjuna Award (an award with a lower rating as compared to the Khel Ratna) recipients this year. It was odd but not surprising because such an award doesn’t just mean prize money, prestige or justification of talent, it may also mean a promotion and a higher pension when one retires.

The bigger point, however, is how India’s National Sports Awards have become about anything but sport – they have become about favours, lobbying, networking, social media presence. In short, they have become political. It has been the case for a while now but with each year, the mess seems to mean that even deserving sportspersons need to sink lower if they want to get noticed or awarded.

Mysterious omissions

The list of awards (you can see the entire list Here) this year is extensive. Perhaps, too extensive. Five Khel Ratna winners, 27 Arjuna Awardees in a non-Olympic, non-Asian Games year is a bit much. But even then, there are glaring omissions.

Take the case of just the nominations by the Athletic Federation of India. Triple jumper Arpinder Singh, 100m runner Dutee Chand, middle-distance runners Manjit Singh and PU Chithra were nominated for the Arjuna Award. Javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra was nominated for the Khel Ratna.

Arpinder was ignored for the Arjuna Award despite winning the Asian Games gold in 2018 in an individual event while Dutee Chand, who won two silvers, has got the award. Yes, there are qualification criteria in place but they are vague.

“The Selection Committee may recommend, in deserving cases with proper justification, more than one sportsperson in respect of team sports and sportspersons of both the genders,” read the MYAS guidelines.

So both could have been accommodated if the selection committee chose to do so. But instead, we have Arpinder missing out with any real justification.

The same is perhaps true for Neeraj. While table tennis star Manika Batra gets the Khel Ratna (for the same Asian Games and CWG performances that won her the Arjuna Award in 2018), Neeraj, who is among the best javelin throwers in the world, and a proper Olympic medal prospect doesn’t.

Then, there is the case of Paralympic high jumper Mariyappan Thangavelu, who received the Arjuna Award and the Padma Shri for his gold at the 2016 Rio Paralympics. But now, has he got the Khel Ratna for the same achievements?

The problem here is that the application of the criteria is not uniform. The whims and fancies of the bureaucrats and ministers do make a difference, likes and dislikes may crop up too, whether they support the government by toeing the line is important too. And then, there will be eminent sports personalities who will push a particular case too. Invariably, this leads to athletes trying to keep everyone happy, trying to play the political game... wish happy birthday to ministers, and thanking them profusely when they respond.

What happens to the former greats?

This might perhaps attract even more controversy but what happens to many of India’s former sporting greats?

Many of them greatly impacted the sports ecosystem in India but they will never have a Khel Ratna against their names. Should the Indian government look to honour them retrospectively?

Rohit Sharma, for example, deserves the Khel Ratna but what about Rahul Dravid or Sunil Gavaskar or Kapil Dev or PT Usha? The entire list looks random and very incomplete.

The International Cricket Council is showing the way when it comes to this. Cricket’s governing body started the Hall of Fame to recognise “the achievements of the legends of the game from cricket’s long and illustrious history”. Now, the initiative was only launched in 2009 but the ICC has tried to ensure that no one misses out.

If one looks at the list 20 years from now, it will make for a far more complete list than India’s list of Khel Ratna awardees ever will. And that is a bit of a shame.

India hasn’t exactly been at the forefront of archiving sporting achievements but a Hall of Fame could perhaps help the country to remember its sporting greats better.

The tedious season

Each year we see hockey veterans line up and demand a Bharat Ratna for Dhyan Chand, one of India’s greatest ever sportspersons. Each year, their calls are greeted with silence. Is it just plain ignorance or do they believe Chand doesn’t deserve it? Can they issue a statement about the matter?

The Government of India awarded Chand the Padma Bhushan, India’s third highest civilian honour, in 1956 but if Sachin Tendulkar could be awarded the Bharat Ratna then was Chand any less of a sportsperson… did he have any less of an impact on Indian sport and society?

Some might even make similar arguments for Viswanathan Anand, Geet Sethi and a few others. To leave things hanging isn’t right. Avoiding the issue altogether isn’t a solution either. The same questions crop up year after year.

Should the government or the selection committee be coming out to explain why someone has got it and why others have missed out? Will that clear the air or only add to the muddle? Either which way, it does raise a stink.

The awards season should rightly be a celebration of great athletes and their feats on the sporting field but it has assumed tedious proportions one never would have imagined possible. And at some level, doesn’t that defeat the whole purpose of the awards?