Sports Awards: Does Merit Count?


sports-awardsThere is never a dull moment with sports awards. The list of  sportspersons and coaches aspiring to get the  Arjuna, Dronacharya and Lifetime Achievement awards is endless. Equally long is the list of grievances and disputes. Year after year, it is the same story with no sensible solution in sight.

The Arjuna award, introduced 55 years ago, was intended to recognize deserving sportspersons. But unfortunately, several worthy athletes were overlooked even as the undeserving ones received it through lobbying and active politicking. So much so, the purpose for which the award was instituted got diluted and the Arjuna award lost its sheen. However, the clamor for it has not stopped, thanks to the cash incentive of Rs. 5 lakh and the lifelong free rail travel that accompanies the award.

Considering the din the award is creating today, the murmurs were few and far between in earlier days. Probably, the officialdom also did not envisage a situation like the one that we are facing now. The noises are ever louder these days with athletes playing the blame games and even approaching the law courts seeking justice.

The sports ministry and the Sports Authority of India (SAI) have to blame themselves for the present scenario. The Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna, the highest
sport award in the country, introduced in the early nineties, and the Padma awards too have become a regular source of controversy, including rejection
of the award by some wellmeaning people for whatever reasons. Grapevine has it that there is also a move to launch the Bharat Ratna in sports category. Remember the row it kicked up when Sachin Tendulkar was bestowed with the highest civilian award!

But controversies are nothing new. In the early eighties, billiards champion Michael Ferreira declined the Padma Shri because cricketer Sunil Gavaskar was considered for the Padma Bhushan. Milkha Singh turned down the Arjuna award in 2001  calling it a ‘tamasha’ because he felt slighted. In fact, the Padma Shree awardee demanded a bigger and better award than the Arjuna.

The Arjuna award had always been mired in controversies since its inception. But nobody would have imagined the athletes raising their pitch for the Khel Ratna in a similar way. In 2002, quarter-miler K.M. Beenamol was chosen for the Khel Ratna ahead of shooter Anjali Bhagwat, who had had a fantastic year and had topped the world cup medals’ chart becoming the champion of champions. She should have been an automatic choice for the award, but was ignored in the first place. She had to make a hue and cry before  both were allowed to share it and the cash prize. Similarly, five-time world champion M. C. Mary Kom had to wait until 2009 to get the Khel Ratna after making the right  noises. She was jointly conferred the honour with Beijing Olympic medallists Vijender Singh and Sushil Kumar. Shooter Gagan Narang too received the award two years later after threatening to quit the sport on being sidelined.

There are innumerable cases where athletes have been  completely overlooked for the sports honors. There was this classic but a deserving case of thrower Anil Kumar who was not considered for the Arjuna in spite of the Athletics Federation of India recommending his case many a time. So perturbed was he that he decided to sit on a dharna at the Raj Ghat and announced his intention through a press conference. He was also able to muster strength, in good numbers, as fellow sympathizers joined him at the dharna. It continued for a couple of days before wiser counsels prevailed, forcing him to call it off. His sitin- dharna, adequately publicized in national dailies, did not have any effect. Maybe, some day the Haryana athlete will be considered for both the ‘lifetime achievement’ award and the Arjuna, as they did in the case of Milkha Singh, 40 years after the award’s inception.

to my mind is that of swimmer Sebastian Xavier. He was the fastest swimmer of the country for more than a decade. But, despite the Swimming Federation of India, recommending his name for the Arjuna he was ignored for a few years. He too contemplated a protest of sort, but was dissuaded from doing so by some well-meaning journalists who brought his anguish to the notice of the officials. Sebastian received the award in 2001.

But none of these instances or conflicts can beat what discus thrower Krishna Poonia did in 2013. The Commonwealth Games gold medal winner felt she
should have been considered for the Khel Ratna ahead of shooter Ronjan Sodhi. In fact, Sodhi should have been honoured much earlier. But aggrieved as
she was, Krishna took the case to the media, aired her grievances, mustered support from elite sportspersons and met the then sports minister Jitendra Singh to endorse her case. But what took the cake was her verbal duel with Anjali Bhagwat, who was a member of the selection panel. Krishna alleged the former Khel Ratna awardee of bias and supporting the cause of a fellow shooter. The diatribe, apart from spoiling the charm of the award, devalued its importance.

In the same year a new controversy broke up when, for the first time, an awardee’s name was struck off from the original list after all the panelists and the
then SAI DG, Jiji Thomson, had endorsed the selection of 16 candidates. As per the ministry’s guidelines only one person can be selected for the Khel Ratna and 15 for the Arjuna. But the athlete left out of the list was international volleyball player Tom Joseph, from Kerala. Big row erupted with the DG SAI, also from Kerala, refusing to sign the papers even as some Kerala politicians, including chief minister Oommen Chandy, lobbying strongly for the volleyball player. After a string of parleys with his officials, including SAI DG, sports minister Jitendra Singh went along with  the panel’s recommendations of 15 for the Arjuna and one for the Khel Ratna.

The committee’s view was that it simply followed what the amended guidelines prescribed when it comes to selecting a Khel Ratna awardee. “There will only be one award every year to be given to an individual sportsperson. This condition will be relaxed only in exceptional circumstances, such as, winning
of an Olympic medal.”

However, the Tom Joseph’s issue was simmering until a clarification came from the ministry. “This not being an Olympic year, the Government has decided not to increase the number of awards so that the stature of the awards is maintained… The Government has looked into the various news reports and grievances of different sportspersons. It has also consulted the chairpersons of the committees. A separate enquiry has also been conducted by Secretary, Sports. After due consideration, the Government has decided to accept the recommendations of the committees,” said the ministry in a release.

The guidelines are firm in content but never adhered to in the strictest sense. The rules clearly say that canvassing in any form for the award will render the entry ineligible, worthy of disqualification. But drumming up support begins  the moment the athletes come know of the panelists that will sit on judgment. The committee members are given very little time—sometimes selections are done in just one sitting—since the applications are first scrutinized at the SAI level and cases made out. That also explains why boxer Manoj Kumar was ignored because his namesake was under the dope cloud.
Definitely, the panelists cannot be arraigned for someone else’s mistake. Triple jumper Renjith  Maheshwary’s is yet another fit case that exposes SAI officials’ casual approach in checking the athletes’ antecedents.

But what makes Indian athletes take to doping? One main reason,  given the financial insecurity of most Indian sportsmen, is the money that comes to those who win medals at top international events. It is but natural for all top athletes to go after the award that carries a huge prize purse and the lifetime free rail travel. Take both out of the award, the clamour for it will automatically come down.

Another way out could be an insurance/incentive scheme for ‘’clean’’ athletes. Already implemented in China, the scheme has been under discussion in India since the Athens Olympics. It would call for the sports ministry, SAI, IOA and federations to sit across the  table, something they are loath to do at the best of times. Under the plan, the prize money — or a substantial part of it — that an athlete would get with any international medals would be kept in a sort of provident fund, the payout being made on retirement with the stipulation that the athlete be free of any doping taint. The payout sum being mentioned has been around Rs. 40-50 lakh which is good enough to take care of an athlete’s after-sport-life. A similar scheme has done wonders in China. There is a large carrot held out, but accompanied, typically, by a big stick. This will help promote true talent and save  sports from the embarrassing instances that demean the status of the athletes as well as the awards’ stature.