Not a year passes without a controversy erupting over the national sports awards. The debate that arises every year following the announcement of the Khel Ratna, Arjuna and Dronacharya awards often leads to accusations of bias, regionalism and manipulation. Representations to the Sports Minister, interventions by Chief Ministers, Union Ministers and politicians have all become part of the game, though the rules stipulate that any form of “canvassing” could lead to disqualification of an entry. In practice, no such disqualification takes place and aspiring candidates readily plead their cases with the Sports Minister even after the recommendations of the awards panel become public knowledge. The Sports Minister, however, wisely stuck to the original recommendations this year, ignoring the raucous protestations from certain quarters about the Khel Ratna and Arjuna awards. But, the last-minute withholding of the Arjuna award to an athlete because of a five-year-old doping infringement was humiliating and contentious, even if within the rules. It left a trail of questions about the choice made by the federation concerned and the effectiveness of the screening procedures carried out by the ministry and the Sports Authority of India.
Over the years, many a deserving candidate has been denied the Arjuna award and some undeserving ones have been given the honour. Though the award today is a thoroughly devalued one, sportspersons hanker after it. The great Milkha Singh, however, rejected it in 2001 since he felt slighted that he was clubbed with many lesser achievers, and that too four decades after his Rome Olympics exploits. The debate generated by Milkha’s refusal helped bring about a welcome change in the composition of the selection committee. But even with a panel dominated by sportspersons, controversies continued to dog the awards scheme. The revised rules have helped reward ‘instant’ success and this has only encouraged athletes and coaches to resort to unethical practices towards achieving their goals. With the awards providing generous cash incentives, coaches invariably make a dash to be recognised as the ones who guided an Olympic or Asian Games medallist, even extracting letters of endorsement from their wards. Unmindful of such manipulation, the ministry has in recent years honoured different coaches for having moulded the same wrestler or the same boxer. The government needs to plug such loopholes in the system and contemplate going back to the old practice of honouring athletes and coaches for achievements and consistency over a period of time rather than on the basis of one freak performance.