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National Sports Day 2019: What’s the Big Idea?

Leslie Xavier |
Indian sports national award system — for the Arjuna, Dronacharya and Khel Ratna — insults the man in honour of whom it is instituted. The spirit of Dhyan Chand demands sportsmen never need to play politics for recognition, a far cry from the mudslinging and allegations of nepotism that mar the National Sports Day every year.
Arjuna Awards on National Sports Day 2019

Every year, many disgruntled athletes and coaches begin a fight for “justice” and “recognition”, giving the notion that the Arjuna Award (in pic), Khel Ratna, or the Dronacharya Award (coaches) is something they badly need to vindicate their excellence.

August 29 acts like a convex lens for Indian sports. Observed as National Sports Day, in memory of the birth date of hockey legend Dhyan Chand, it facilitates the convergence of all achievements, entities, attributes and emotions that make Indian sports unique — the champion athletes, the great coaches, their exalted moments of victory, and, last but not least, the tradition of mudslinging, pointing out nepotism and power plays, that have been as much a part of our sporting heritage as the underwhelming returns from the Olympic Games. 

HS Prannoy, along with a couple of others, ensured the tradition was kept alive this year. The badminton player, who won gold in the mixed team event at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, was furious at missing out on the Arjuna Award due to, as some officials confirmed, a delay in paperwork. He took to Twitter to express his angst and disappointment. “If you ever want your name in the Awards list , make sure you have people who will get your name to the list. Performance is least considered in our country. Sad state of our county but can't help it. Let go and just play until you can.”

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Last year, it was the turn of World No. 1 wrestler Bajrang Punia to lash out at the awards process. Punia, who was in the initial nomination list for the Khel Ratna award, was edged out in the final screening by Virat Kohli and weightlifter Mirabai Chanu. He, apparently, had more points than the winners. He lost out to, as some had pointed out at the time, the popularity and clout of the Indian cricket team skipper. Punia received the coveted honour this year. Well, better late than never, pehalwan ji, for there have been tales of many “nevers” when it comes to these sports awards.

And, year by year, if one does a bit of digging, many news articles surface of disgruntled athletes and coaches and their fight for “justice” and “recognition”, giving the notion that the Arjuna Award or the Dronacharya Award (coaches) is something they badly need to vindicate their exploits and excellence in the field.

Then comes the allegations that many who make it to the list doesn’t deserve the award. There is a joke which did the rounds in the wrestling circles about how double Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar, singlehandedly, was responsible for a few Dronacharya awards. After all, who could say no to “Sushil pehalwan’s coach”. The most questionable among the wrestling Dronacharya awardees in the 2000s was Raj Singh in 2013. Now, it is common knowledge that Raj Singh, Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) general secretary at the time, was never into coaching. However, he ensured he occupied the coveted coach’s seat when Sushil was fighting at the 2012 London Olympics, where he won silver. A year later, the WFI had forwarded two names for Dronacharya. The second name, that of veteran akhara coach, Guru Jasram, never made it.

Like all things related to nepotism and corruption, there are a lot of grey areas in the Arjuna and Dronacharya awards processes which doesn’t leave any definite proof of such practices. As some say, corruption is like air. But some cases, like Raj Singh’s for instance, the stink is beyond masking. And, it is a given that, the National Sports Day awards is all but reserved for the ones who can manage a bit of political push to go alongside their sporting performance. And, for the ones with a slightly underwhelming sporting resume, the powerful politicos are always there.

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However, the point to ponder is the unhealthy fixation of Indian athletes about winning these awards. There is no questioning the honour involved. However, one would imagine the bigger honour would be to win for the country at the grandest stages in the world. 

Imagine a sporting great, for instance a Roger Federer or an Usain Bolt, crying foul and fighting for an award in their country. That would definitely belittle their greatness, won’t it? Then again, Federer or Bolt’s performances have taken them to such a stature that no one will deny them any honour. The real mission for an athlete should be to reach such a plane of existence.

Indian athletes should realise that real honour lay elsewhere. They would perhaps do more justice to themselves, their self respect and their abilities, by focusing on competitions, rather than be part of the mudslinging race that invariably gets flagged off days before India’s National Sports Day.

However, the precedent for this is such that even the great Dhyan Chand, in whose honour the day is observed, is not immune.

The legend, who led the pre-independent Indian hockey team to three Olympic gold medals, has not been honoured with the Bharat Ratna. The award’s rules were tweaked in 2012 to make sportspersons eligible for the highest civilian honour. Since then, the hockey fraternity in the country, including Dhyan Chand’s World Cup winning son Ashok Kumar, many fans, politicians, and the media have all campaigned for the award to be bestowed posthumously to, arguably, the greatest ever hockey player in the world. 

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So far, the only sportsperson to get the Bharat Ratna has been Sachin Tendulkar, an MP, or, as some say, a God. Dhyan Chand, if alive, may not have been bothered about the award, for his honour lay etched in gold on the various hockey fields he made his own with his magical stick. 

Then again, he was a world beater in his day. We hardly have world beaters in India anymore, barring a Bajrang, a PV Sindhu, and maybe a couple more. And perhaps, the psychological tick over a recommendation-driven award is needed for Indian sportspersons to feel secure about a career “well played”!

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