The country celebrates the National Sports Day on August 29 — the birthday of hockey wizard Dhyan Chand — and elite athletes and coaches assemble in the Rashtrapati Bhawan to receive the highest sporting honours from the President.
The country waits with bated breath; peers assembled inside the Ashoka Hall shed tears of joy as their near and dear ones receive the awards. The National Anthem draws the curtains on the sombre ceremony, and athletes, with pride and patriotism swelling in their hearts, exchange pleasantries and pose with their trophies.
The occasion showcases the ‘sportsman’s spirit’, and motivates the younger generation to start dreaming of glory. Legends like Sachin Tendulkar, Abhinav Bindra, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore have walked down the red carpet to receive the award and later mingled with mortals.
Departure from the past
Not for a moment does one like to associate the awards with controversies, though the fickle mind unwittingly gets cluttered with the muck athletes have started to throw at each other in the run-up to the awards.
How graciously Rathore congratulated Anju Bobby George for the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna is in contrast to the way Gagan Narang raked up a storm on Saina Nehwal receiving the highest sporting award. The rifle marksman’s explosive comments that he was hardly motivated for the Commonwealth Games stuck out like a raw chord.
The award had once again been made a tool to arm twist the government into reversing — or compromising --- its decision. A trial by media played into millions of homes. Was Narang competing for the award or for national pride? Or, was rifle shooter Anjali Vedpathak Bhagwat, the woman with the coolest nerves, breaking all norms of politeness, when she launched a scathing attack on middle-distance runner KM Beenamol, who was recommended for the Khel Ratna in 2002?
The media played it out like a potboiler and those words “shaayad koi aur Beenam-ol paida ho jaaye (who knows, some other Beenamol will be there next year)”, still resonate.
Even as discus thrower Krishna Poonia launches a broadside at the Khel Ratna committee over the selection of shotgun marksman Ronjan Sodhi, one is left wondering what happened to the sportsman spirit and peerless moments they shared as part of the Indian conting-ent that marched at the 2012 London Olympic Games.
Yet again, the ugly side of the sporting world has reared its head, and one is left wondering why, since the award’s inception in 1991, controversies have become an integral ingredient.
Have the policymakers - in this case the sports ministry - erred in framing foolproof guidelines, or is there something amiss in the panel which shortlists the awardees?
As the debate over Sodhi and Poonia lingers on, HN Girisha, silver-medallist in the 2012 London Paralympic Games, too has thrown his hat in the ring. He feels he has been ignored for the Khel Ratna.
People familiar with policymaking say lobbying is an integral part and starts much before forms are actually filled. Former national boxing coach, OP Bhardwaj, who was among the first recipients of the Dronacharya Award in 1985-86, says manipulation is commonplace. “Everybody pulls strings to get ahead in the race. Those with better connections move forward, while the deserving ones are pushed to the backseat.”
Maybe, he is right. Athletes and coaches need to have the “right connection” in the national sports federations, the ministry or Sports Authority of India to make a strong bid. Perhaps, this is the reason why Raj Singh, secretary-general of the Wrestling Federation of India, has managed to get his name nominated for the Dronacharya this year, or for that matter, a certain ‘shooting coach’, Sunny Thomas, managed it in 2001, his claim to fame being that he ‘introduced’ Jaspal Rana and Vivek Singh to shooting.
Raj Singh allegedly manipulated documents to avail of financial benefits from the government to travel abroad for over six years. SAI and ministry officials apparently looked the other way.
Efforts in vain
Perhaps, SAI’s judo coach, Gurcharan Gogi, the man whose efforts at the grassroots are well known, could have been a better choice for the award. For over three decades, Gogi has been working tirelessly, polishing the skills of judokas who have gone on to bag the Arjuna and many have made it to the national level. His protégé, Neha Thakur, won bronze at the 2010 Youth Olympics.
For Gogi, it’s become an annual ritual, filling up the form and waiting endlessly for a response. One of the most deserving boxing coaches, Ibomcha Singh from Manipur, who has trained the likes of MC Marykom and Ng Dingko Singh, waited and waited till he finally got it in 2010 — too late in the day to be of significance. “People who work hard to make the foundation strong should get a pat. The day isn’t far when people will stop working and it will dilute the national team,” says Gogi, who has been coaching since 1978.
There have been countless instances where the panel’s recommendations have raised eyebrows. Powerlifting coach, Bhupinder Dhawan, will probably never be in the league of the tireless athletics coach, the late Ilyas Babar, or baize sport exponent, Wilson Jones, yet the panel recommended him for the Dronacharya in 2000. Delhi-based former international powerlifter, Puran Singh, says Dhawan wasn’t a deserving candidate. “He furnished false information in his application form,” said Puran, Dhawan’s contemporary.
A review of past nominations throws up startling cases. Several Drona awardees have got awards for ‘polishing’ the skills of top athletes, notable among them being Renu Kohli, whose claim to fame was that she “polished the skills” of middle and long-distance runner Sunita Rani, who won two Asian Games gold in 2002. It was a different matter that Rani tested positive, but was later exonerated.
The issue of riding piggyback on the performance of wards and relatives and making a bid for the Dronacharya too has been sidestepped by the ministry and panel. Otherwise, why would three coaches get feted for the achievement of grappler Sushil Kumar, the two-time Olympic medallist.
Satpal, now Sushil’s father-in-law, got the award in 2009 for Sushil’s Beijing exploits. Then, Ramphal and Yashvir Singh also mentioned Sushil as one of their trainees and secured the award. Now what if Sushil bags a medal at the 2016 Rio Games?
Kripa Shankar, an Arjuna awardee in wrestling and a selection panel member, says the government should revise its policy from time to time to avoid controversy. “New norms should be included so that there is no ambiguity amongst the applicants,” he said. He felt there should be no voting but a points system to pick the best of the lot.
Money a factor
“This is a disturbing trend. Such a practice should be discouraged as many more coaches are working hard to produce champions,” says former athletics great Gurbachan Singh Randhawa. With money the overriding factor — Khel Ratna fetches R7.5 lakh and Dronacharya R5 lakh — there is a long list of relatives — especially fathers and husbands — lining up to seize the ‘easy’ opportunity to get the Dronacharya. Sukhchain Cheema got it for the exploits of his son, grappler Palvinder; Jaswant Singh, for his wife, the dope-tainted discus thrower Neelam Singh. Robert George bagged it for long-jumper Anju Bobby’s showing at the world stage and Virender got the award last year for Poonia’s exploits.
It’s down to family business, literally.
Controversies galore down the years
Sanamacha Chanu (weightlifting): In 2001, the lifter bagged the award despite having served a two-year ban for testing positive for a steroid. The then IOA secretary-general, Randhir Singh, brushed aside the controversy saying that since the test was conducted by an Indian laboratory, and not recognised by the international federation, the veracity of the test was questionable.
Anuj Kumar and Bobby Aloysius (Wrestling and athletics): In 2004, the selections triggered a major controversy with grappler Anuj Kumar going on an indefinite strike at Raj Ghat and high jumper Bobby Aloysius announcing her retirement the subsequent week.
L Sarita Devi (Boxing): After being dropped from the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games contingent, the Manipuri pugilist went to the then sports minister, MS Gill’s residence to return her Arjuna, awarded to her in 2009 for her World Championship silver in 2008.
Washing dirty linen in public not the way about
Marksman Gagan Narang publicly expressed his displeasure after being ignored for the award and threatened to skip the 2010 Commonwealth Games due to lack of motivation. He was quoted as saying that the Khel Ratna was like a film award that was distributed on the basis of public and media perception. He got the award in 2011.
Shooter Anjali Vedpathak Bhagwat did not let up till she was declared joint recipient along with middle-distance runner KM Beenamol in 2002. Feeling that this was her last chance to stake a claim, she was quoted as saying that “there is no guarantee of winning even next year because ‘shaayad koi aur Beenamol paida ho jaaye (who knows, some other Beenamol will be there)’.” She also targeted Abhinav Bindra, saying, “Last year too I was recommended for the Khel Ratna. But the award went to Abhinav…They (Bindras) are rich and influential people.”
Discus thrower Krishna Poonia, unhappy with double-trap marksman Ronjan Sodhi being recommended for the highest sporting honour, said her credentials were better and that she was more deserving. Sodhi has the achievements to back his claim, but with the issue snowballing into a major controversy, the ministry might again buckle under pressure and find the middle path --- joint recipients.
An unseemly controversy was created last year when the ministry refuted the Indian cricket board’s claim that the government hadn’t sent the forms for nominating cricketers for the Arjuna and Khel Ratna. The BCCI said it did not forward the names as no official mail or form was forwarded by the ministry, while the latter said letters had been sent to all sports federations, including the BCCI.