Indian athletes and officials are threatening to turn national sports awards into a dirty joke
The controversy over every national award is getting beyond the pale. Unedifying hankering, uncultured lobbying and above all the lack of firmness in sticking to the norms have robbed the awards of the grace they deserve.
It is not just the highest civilian award Bharat Ratna and the Padma awards which are mired in the unseemly tug-of-war; even sportspersons have crossed the limits of decency in running down the chosen athletes and glorifying their own credentials, in the process undermining the sportsman's spirit.
If some put forth genuine grievances, some others force a rethink by the awards selection committee using pulls and pressures and their political clout.
The awards for 2013 announced earlier this week are no exception. Again, the usual complaints of oversight and intense lobbying by the lost-out athletes surfaced. The committee is expected to meet again early next week to set a wrong right and choose boxer Manoj Kumar for the Arjuna Award.
A bureaucratic bungle showed in the remarks column that the 2010 Commonwealth Games gold medal winner was 'dope-tainted' when it was actually a case of mistaken identity! For no fault of the committee, it has taken the rap.
The Awards Committee headed by Kapil Dev did well not to bestow the Khel Ratna to anyone as it found that no one fulfilled the required credentials. But there is a school of thought that feels the best in the country should be honoured and that the committe should not just look for the best in the business, thus backing the claims for tennis star Somdev Devvarman.
Somdev's supporters point to his remarkable return to the top 100 on the ATP rankings after a shoulder surgery kept him off the tour for over a year. But the flip side of it is his none-too-impressive Grand Slam record, where he has rarely got past first round.
Krishna Poonia was in the running again, while badminton player Pusarla Venkata Sindhu and discus thrower Vikas Gowda were also in the fray. The committee rightly felt that Sindhu and Gowda will get their turn in the future. Sindhu's best days are ahead of her and Gowda can reinforce his claims at the Incheon Asian Games.
Some big names of Indian sports, like Poonia herself, showed their gawkiness in pitching for the awards, and some of them succeeded in snatching them too. The one person who thought it below his dignity to accept an Arjuna Award four decades after his achievements is legendary Milkha Singh, and his tiff with the then sports minister is understandable.
Anjali Bhagwat, who made such a hue and cry for not being considered for the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna in 2002 and even foul-mouthed the winner (quarter-miler K.M. Beenamol), showed her bias for fellow-shooter Ranjan Sodhi as a selection committee member, ignoring the claims of discus thrower Krishna. The irony is hard to escape.
Bhagwat forgot her outburst when she became a selection committee member. Her reported tasteless remark when she heard of the committee's view that she could get it the following year was: "I don't know. Shayad agle saal koi aur Beenamol paida ho jaaye (maybe another Beenamol will be born next year)."
This is not to say Sodhi did not deserve the Ratna or that Poonia's claims were any less worthy. But surely the unseemly controversy has dimmed the glow of the award.
Of course, what Poonia did should have invited severe censure even if her grouse was legitimate, as Bhagwat herself had forced her way to share the Ratna with Beenamol.
In fact, lobbying and bad-mouthing fellow athletes is strictly no-no and those who indulge in it should be blacklisted straightaway. There should be stricter norms for making representations and reopening of the cases.
As for Khel Ratna, it should, perhaps, be given to an athlete for his life-time achievement instead of a one-off major success. There have been instances of the Ratnas doing precious little after being rewarded. That is not necessarily a reflection on their standing, but it is important that their Ratna-winning performance should not look like a fluke.
If Khel Ratna is equated with the highest civilian award – the Bharat Ratna – then the achiever would have to go through stricter scrutiny since greater dignity would be attached to it.
Ever since the award was instituted in 1991-92, only twice has it not been awarded, and there have been three instances when it was shared by two. Four years ago it was decided that there should be only one Khel Ratna unless there are compelling circumstances to break the rule.
Kapil Dev's committee has also rightly recommended a cap on the number of awardees. These awards are not for promise or potential, but for meritorious performance.
There have to be fool-proof criteria laid down. There should not be any scope for speculation. There are those who got awards by applying independently with recommendation from a powerful state chief minister or an MP. Even the applications have to be routed through a proper channel.
Then that intriguing case of badminton, some fertile mind thought shuttle-cock should be recognised and not the outdoor ball badminton played with a golf-ball sized wool ball, not realising controlling it in the windy outside is no joke. Maybe someone thought it is essentially a sport played in south India. This kind of subjective consideration to belittle a sport is dangerous.
Another undesirable feature of this year's committee is the alleged conflict of interest of one of the members, as highlighted by a volatile Hockey India secretary general. The member in question was picked as an electronic media representative and he was reported to have expressed disparaging views on hockey, a sport with which he was closely connected not long ago before falling out with the Hockey India bosses.
This raises the question whether media persons should be involved in government-sponsored awards. Just like so much else about Indian sports awards, this too is debatable.