How Manoj Sarkar, a two-time para-badminton World Champion, has been forced to plead on Twitter for fair share of recognition
Earlier this month, the athletes recommended for the Arjuna Award were announced by the selection committee and the list featured a total of 17 sportspersons from across a variety of disciplines. Like every year, there was a lot of controversy regarding the exclusion of certain names from the prestigious list, with athletes such as tennis star Rohan Bopanna and race car driver Gaurav Gill openly speaking out about their omission.
The 17 names included two para-athletes, in the form of Mariyappan Thangavelu and Varun Singh Bhati, both of whom won medals for the nation at the Rio Paralympics last year and merit a place on the list for the coveted honour. However, there is another para-athlete who is highly deserving of the award and whose exclusion sticks out like a sore thumb.
Para-badminton star Manoj Sarkar has had some incredible successes in his sport in the last few years, having won 15 gold medals at national level and a total of 20 at the international stage, which have catapulted him to a world ranking of number two. The most surprising part of this is that he started competing in para-badminton in 2011 and before that, he didn't even know that there is a separate section of the sport for athletes with physical disabilities.
World champion in just three years
Sarkar was struck by polio during his teenage years and has taken the impairment well into his stride. He competes in the SL3 category, where players have disabilities in one or both lower limbs and poor walking/running balance. A regular in both singles and doubles categories, he has won numerous tournaments at national, continental and international levels, while also maintaining his ranking among the world's best over the years.
He played his first nationals in 2011, where he won gold in the singles category and a bronze in the doubles - a rich haul in what his first ever competition at this stage. Since then, he has trailblazed the national circuit, with 15 golds so far at the senior level.
A year after his domestic bow, he traveled to France for his first international competition in April 2012. It was another debut to remember as Sarkar clinched gold in both the singles as well as doubles events. However, in retrospect, it was just a sighter for the man from Rudrapur in Uttarakhand.
In November 2013, Sarkar was part of the Indian contingent that took part in the BWF World Championships in Germany. It was quite a successful outing for him as well, as he clinched gold in the men's doubles category, coupled with a bronze in the mixed doubles.
Sarkar was then selected in the India squad that travelled to Incheon, South Korea in 2014 for the Asian Para Games, where he won a silver in the men's singles SL3 class. Another successful campaign was to follow in the World Championships in 2015 in England, before he added another feather to his cap by being crowned Asian Champion in November last year in China, with a gold in the singles and bronze in the doubles.
India among para-badminton elite, but without recognition
According to the guidelines issued by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, sporting achievements between the period of 1st January, 2013 to 31st December 2016, will be considered while deciding the Arjuna awardees for this year. How a two-time World Champion, Asian Games silver medalist and Asian Champion during the very same period is not given any recognition is certainly puzzling. His cabinet may be filled with medals from across the world, but the missing Arjuna statuette is something that is painful for the shuttler.
"I am extremely hurt by this by this exclusion. We have always been neglected," a dejected Sarkar told Sportskeeda when asked about the recognition para-shuttlers have received. "In the last 10 years, nobody from our sport has received the Arjuna or Dronacharya award. Ours might not be an Olympic sport as of now, but our achievements are certainly worthy of recognition," he added.
And he is not wrong on that count either, with India being one of the most dominant forces in the sport. A total of five Indians feature in the top 25 of the latest men's singles SL3 world rankings, with Sarkar himself on number two and another Indian, Pramod Bhagat, occupying the top spot.
In the SL4 section, three spots in the top 10 are occupied by Indian para-shuttlers, the highest of them being Sukant Kadam's number two place. In the women's singles SL3 rankings, Parul Parmar and Manasi Joshi are first and third respectively.
While para-athletes in track and field events and their coaches have had honours bestowed upon them in recent years, para-badminton has yet to receive a single one so far in the last ten. "I certainly have an equal claim to the Arjuna award as the Paralympic medalists (Varun Bhati and Mariyappan Thangavelu), if not more. It's like we do not exist all because we cannot compete in the Paralympics," bemoans Sarkar.
Forced to present case on social media
He is adamant about the fact that he deserves the accolade and recently, he also tweeted out to Sports Minister Vijay Goel, making a case for the same. He argues that in terms of the 'marks' system laid down for the award, he is ahead of the Paralympian duo, Also, he questions how the government is accepting applications for the non-Olympic para sports but not awarding any athletes or coaches in the same in the last decade.
"I hope nobody has to go through the trauma I am going through," he said. "If the government doesn't want to consider para-badminton players at all, they should atleast make it clear in writing. It's really sad that we are left in the middle like this."
Para-badminton will feature for the first time at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo 2020 and Sarkar hopes that it will finally mean that his sport will get its fair share. Till then, the wait for the award continues, like it has always been.
Here's hoping that the efforts put in by the para-badminton stars and their coaches are valued by the authorities. They have made the nation proud on so many occasions and it is only fair that they get the recognition they so richly deserve.