Arjuna Award and the fishbowl of controversies

The sports awards season is upon us, and it has begun resembling the cynicism that accompanies the handing out of film awards. The Indian Express looks at what goes wrong - for want of discernment on part of the award-givers

Updated: August 13, 2017 8:16 am
arjuna award, khel ratna, dronacharya award, mithali raj, sourav ganguly rahul dravid, sports news, indian express The Arjuna award no longer feels like the ‘best performance of last year.’ (Source: Express Archives)

Not always the ‘best of the year’

Exaggerations and spontaneous glee over triumphs aside, India is not teeming with Olympic gold medallists or champions at the global level. So it’s not like a dozen names need to be crammed in the same year in a single sport increasing the headaches of committees. Prompt noting down of performances throughout the year, can easily yield a shortlist of five names per sport to the sports ministry – though it might need expert vetting from the federation. That’s five, in a very, very good year.

Still, the four-year performance period has left room for immense subjectivity, and with changing committees and short term memories, the Arjuna no longer feels like the ‘best performance of last year.’ It can range anything between ‘that stray top score four years ago’ to ‘there’s a lifetime of sweat, blood and tears here.’

A better method would be to stick to a one year period, and get that one top performer spot-on. If the awards have to regain their respect, even awarding the same athlete for multiple years needs to be considered, if they have performances to show.

If Rohan Bopanna’s Davis Cup showing against Serbia wasn’t enough in 2014, his Rio 4th place ought to have been valid for 2016. Saketh Myneni is a talent from whom much can be expected in coming seasons. To dig up his Asian Games medals from 2014 which the best in Asia tend to skip, for the award, is just settling for very low standards.

Why Prashanti Singh would win after having quit basketball three years ago, and Amjyot Singh ignored despite shining for India against China and in Japan last year – nobody can explain. As for Geethu Anna Jose, she won the award seven years after taking India to Division B Asian title.

While 95 Arjuna awards in athletics would give one the impression that India is a track & field superpower, fact remains there’s been ‘0’ Olympic medals and zero quality control. Plus there are plenty of over-rated Arjuna awardees, whose achievements were inflated by a pushy federation. A yearly appraisal could have brought that number down to a quarter, if not less. That Suresh Raina – a World Cup winner from 2011, still doesn’t have an Arjuna, and might never get one, is scandalous.

Award for Sindhu, Sakshi; not for Mithali

The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) did not nominate Mithali Raj for Khel Ratna because her performance came almost two months after the deadline for submitting the applications. Raj, the ministry said, was not considered for this very reason.

But this has been an ad-hoc rule. Often swayed by public sentiments, the ministry has fallen prey to the urge of bypassing their own regulations to make certain exceptions. Last year they feted PV Sindhu, Sakshi Malik and Dipa Karmakar for their performances at the Rio Games, which had concluded days before the awards.

In 2012, the medal winners were rewarded even though the London Olympics, like Rio, ended months after the deadline. Olympics take place in July and August. The last date to send the nominations for the awards is around last week of April.

The ministry resisted this urge till 2008. Mary Kom, Sushil Kumar and Vijender Singh were awarded Khel Ratna the following year. But in 2010, Saina Nehwal pipped Gagan Narang and wrestler Ramesh Kumar to the post after her twin Super Series titles – both after the deadline – compelled the ministry-appointed committee to relax the norms.

Last year, the Olympic medallists were awarded but the Paralympians were not. The ministry assured all Rio Paralympics medal winners would be given the Khel Ratna but only one, Devendra Jhajharia, received it. Mariyappan Thangavellu got an Arjuna while Deepa Malik was ignored altogether. No explanation has been offered so far.

Similarly, Dipa Karmakar’s 4th-place finish earned her a Khel Ratna last year but archer Atanu Das has not even been considered for Arjuna despite an impressive show in Rio.

When there was a clamour to reward Raj for becoming the world’s leading run scorer in ODIs and guiding India to the World Cup final, the sports ministry parroted its 12-page scheme lays out each regulation. But there’s also certain degree of ambiguity in it, which gives them enough room to maneuver and act according to their convenience.

Prashanti wins 3 years after having last played

Commonwealth Games gold is the lowest hanging fruit on the global wrestling calendar for Indians. At the 2014 Glasglow Games, India won one-third of its gold medals (5) and a fifth of its silvers (6) in wrestling. A highly inflated figure when compared to not just the World Championships (1 bronze) and Olympics (1 bronze) that followed but also the Asian Games (1 gold, 1 silver, 3 bronze) where Iran and Japan turned up few months later. This year’s Arjuna-winning wrestler is Satyawrat Kadian, who won a silver at CWG ‘14.

Badminton at CWG is just not the same as badminton at Asian Games. Even within shooting, pistol at CWG and pistol at Asian Games differs. On the other hand, a hockey gold or athletics silver seems imminently possible at Asiad, but tougher at CWG.

The Arjuna Award system is not clear on the difference between a periodic World Cup and a World Championship, the second-most important event after the Olympics.

Remarkably, an archery World Cup medal would be seen in the same light as a World Athletics Championship medal. For the world championships held once in less than four years, ‘proportionate marks’ are given to the ones held every four years. They, however, do not specify ‘proportionate marks’, which makes the process ambiguous.

The Arjuna point system simply airbrushes all under one category, and none of the committee panelists — former sportspersons or journalists — have managed to convince themselves to consider Grand Slams and Davis Cup important in tennis or the Super Series to be crucial in badminton, leaving it to discretion and interpretation.

Citing rules etched in stone, one atrocity after another gets repeated each year, only because of a blatantly faulty points system. And it leads to a situation where Saketh Myneni pips Rohan Bopanna to the Arjuna, and no one can do a jot about it, because rules were framed with ignorance of these asterisked riders.

Rahul dravid, Dravid, Rahul Dravid India, India cricket, cricket india, india cricket team, india u 19, u 19 cricket, india vs bangladesh, bangladesh vs india, cricket news, cricket Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly have never been awarded Khel Ratnas. (Source: PTI)

Ganguly, Dravid aren’t Khel Ratnas

The objective of the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna is to “recognise the spectacular and most outstanding performance in the field of sports.”

But when it comes to the country’s most popular sport — cricket — many such performances have been overlooked with some of the biggest names not found worthy enough for the honour.

While sportspersons from other disciplines are often felicitated for performances at events where the level of competition may not be the highest, top cricketers, who face the best in the business on a regular basis, often end up with the short end of the stick.

Since the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna was instituted in 1991-92, only two cricketers —Sachin Tendulkar and Mahendra Singh Dhoni — have got it. Rahul Dravid, who was one of the best batsmen in the world for more than a decade, was never awarded. Neither were the likes of Sourav Ganguly, VVS Laxman and Anil Kumble.

It is beyond any doubt that top cricketers enjoy popularity and a high profile that is not the case with most other sportspersons. But their exceptional performances do need to be recognised at par with Olympic sports.

Dravid could have got it when he scored a ton of runs on the 2002 England tour. Kumble could have been recognised after his 10-wicket innings haul against Pakistan in 1999. Laxman’s epic 281 against Australia in 2001 was also not honoured. Interestingly, Abhinav Bindra got the Khel Ratna that year, seven years before he clinched India’s first individual Olympic gold medal.

What’s more, no Indian cricketer got the Khel Ratna after India won the 2011 World Cup, not even Player of the Tournament Yuvraj Singh.

Even in the latest award cycle, the Indian team, which had a stellar home season, could have been recognised with a few key players worthy of the Khel Ratna. It seems that cricket falls prey to its own hype and profile, as there is a tendency by the panels to over-compensate by recognising ‘other’ sports. But it is no way to recognise excellence as several deserving candidates go unrewarded.

First Slam champ not a Khel Ratna

There was a time when a medal at the Asian Games or the Commonwealth Games made a sportsperson eligible for a major award, regardless of where the performance ranks at the global level. For the last three decades, the only Indian track-and-field athlete to make an impact on the biggest stage has been long jumper Anju Bobby George. But Jyotirmoy Sikdar and KM Beenamol have been awarded for achievements at the continental level.

On the other hand, exploits at Grand Slams, where the best of the best take part, are not always recognised. Leander Paes and Sania Mirza are the only tennis players to have been honoured with the Khel Ratna. The likes of Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna have been ignored, the latter not even found worthy of the Arjuna Award.

Professional golfers also don’t seem to get their due from the awards committee. Jeev Milkha Singh has been universally acknowledged as the pioneer for those coming after him. His four European Tour victories, two of them on European soil, proved that he could flourish outside the comforts of familiar Asian courses. He has beaten several top players on some of the most high-profile tour events, but that doesn’t seem to be enough for the Khel Ratna.

For the sake of honouring different sports, there is the tendency to award athletes from as many disciplines as possible. Sometimes, a name is approved after it has been in the running for a long time. Rifle shooter Gagan Narang got the nod for 2011. His greatest achievement came a year later when he won an Olympic bronze.

There have been many such inconsistencies in the process when either an athlete has been nominated in the wrong year or a notable achievement has been ignored altogether, leading to questions being raised.

Foreign coaches: Not good enough for govt

Hours after Karnam Malleswari won bronze in Sydney, the medal wasn’t with her. Instead, it was wrapped around the throat of Leonid Taranenko, strutting around the Olympic village with pride. That’s the only bit of recognition the Bulgarian has received. And he isn’t the only foreign coach whose contribution is lost in the maze of sporting bureaucracy.

Every major Indian achievement since the turn of the century has had a foreign hand. But even as the athletes and their Indian support staff has been recognized, the men who’ve made the actual difference have been ignored.

The list is too long – Gary Kirsten in cricket, Indonesian Atik Jauhari — who is credited with pushing the likes of Saina Nehwal and P Kashyap to the next level — and even Leander Paes’ former coach David O’Meara.

Indian shooting turned a corner with Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore’s silver at Athens. But none of the coaches who’ve hand-held Indian athletes at the world stage have been rewarded.

During his 12-year stint from 1991 to 2002, Hungarian Tibor Gonczol — the late pistol coach — mentored Samresh Jung, Jaspal Rana, Suma Shirur and Anjali Bhagwat and turned them into world beaters.

After he left, Laszlo Szucsak was even more revered for his guidance. Pavel Smirnov and Stanislav Lapidus have been crucial in India’s Olympic medal hunt. Abhinav Bindra’s coaches Heinz Reinkemeier and Gaby Buhlmann, too, have been ignored because they were his personal coaches and not attached to the national team. It’s astonishing that the last time a coach got a Dronacharya in shooting was in 2001, much before the revolution was triggered.

The argument put forth is that the coaches are paid handsome remuneration for their services. The award is a way to make up for poor compensation to Indian coaches. Therein lies another problem, that of not paying the Indians respectable salaries to coach the athletes.

But that’s a debate for another day.

Clueless at the meeting

Lanka Ravi isn’t a household name. But if you are a part of the panel that selects the Dronacharya Award winners, the least that’s expected is to know the names you’ll be discussing.

But when the name of the former chess player popped up, there were blank stares. A few muted murmurs later, it was decided Ravi should not get the award. Whether Ravi should, or should not, have got the award is not the point.

Many a times, the former players in the panel are not aware of the achievers from disciplines other than their own. They often rely on the information provided to them by the ministry officials, who have the ability to steer the debate in favour of, or against, an athlete.

The ministry officials hold the key. There is a two-year cooling off period for every member of the committee before he can be a part of it again. But there’s no such restriction on the sports ministry officials.

Before the meeting, they prepare a dossier and send it to the committee for their reference (although a Dronacharya panelist said he received it only on the day of the meeting). Sometimes, the compilation is incomplete. For instance, when the Khel Ratna panel was given Sania Mirza’s profile in 2015, it did not include two of her biggest matches, including a WTA final.

Instead of studying every application on its merit, what takes place is horse-trading. “In many cases, the committee members decide to second each other’s athletes. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Simple,” says a former committee member.

All meetings are video recorded. This was done to ensure there’s evidence in case of a controversy. But seldom are these videos revisited. The copies may be lying in one of those rusting cupboards at the sports ministry’s Shastri Bhawan office. To ensure transparency, it might not be a bad idea to livestream the meetings.

The final list of the awardees goes with the signatures of the committee members. It is a good enough reason for them to take the utmost responsibility as any subsequent controversy may show them in poor light.

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