M.C. Mary Kom, Vijender Singh and Sushil Kumar have plenty in common. Hailing from modest backgrounds, they all overcame financial constraints to excel in what they are good at. Yet, they have followed diverse paths to reach the milestone.

For the first time, the nation honoured three sportspersons with the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna.

M.C. Mary Kom, Vijender Singh and Sushil Kumar have plenty in common. Hailing from modest backgrounds, they all overcame financial constraints to excel in what they are good at. Yet, they have followed diverse paths to reach the milestone.

Precisely two years ago, in the August of 2007, Vijender was finding it difficult to find company in the crowded Ashoka Hall of Rashtrapati Bhawan. Soon after receiving the Arjuna Award, this boxer was dying to get rid of the ill-fitted maroon blazer that every awardee was expected to wear on what is deemed to be a very special occasion.

Last August, Vijender well and truly caught the imagination of the masses. A bronze in the Beijing Olympics changed his life forever. The media, marketing agents and fans queued up to get his attention. Rewards followed recognition and soon, he became one of the most visible sportspersons on television.

Mobbed

On Saturday, Vijender was back at the Rashtrapati Bhawan as one among the three recipients of the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award. Unlike two years ago, he was the most wanted celebrity among the awardees. Mobbed by female autograph hunters among the invitees, Virender soon left for his hotel on way to catch a flight to Milan for the ensuing World championship.

“I think life changed after the bronze in Beijing. When I got the Arjuna award, I obviously felt good but it did not change my life much. For me, awards are important. When I learnt that I was not considered for Padmashree (in January 2009), I felt sad.

“The recognition that comes with the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award is indeed very, very special. But, this is just the beginning. I want to work harder and win more and more medals, rewards and awards. I know I am what I am because of boxing. If I excel in boxing, other benefits will follow. I know where I stand and where I want to be,” added Vijender, admired not only for his skills in the boxing ring or his rustic charm but also for his warm and friendly demeanour.

Sushil may not enjoy the same mass following as Vijender but is certainly the new poster boy of the Indian wrestling fraternity.

He appeared the happiest among the three Khel Ratna awardees this year.

Enhancing the image

“This honour will help improve the image of wrestling and wrestlers in the country. In villages, in and around Delhi, many “use” the services of pseudo wrestlers for illegal activities. Such people bring bad name to wrestling. This is unacceptable to me.

“Most wrestlers are simple human beings who, in the name of God, stay dedicated to the sport. Villagers encourage their young sons to take to wrestling so that he can bring a good name to the family. With his honour, more than me, my family feels proud. Now I am inspired to do even better,” added Sushil.

Equally inspired is Mary, a four-time world boxing champion, for whom the award came after a three-year wait. After being ignored thrice, she finally found recognition this year. It was a case of better late than never for this amiable Manipuri.

“Like the Arjuna and Padmashree awards, this honour motivates me to do better for the country whenever I get a chance,” said Mary. “Now that women’s boxing is included in the 2012 Olympics, I am very determined to bring the gold to India. It is my dream. I know it is possible,” she added.

On this day, Mary looked back at her days of struggle and said, “With my modest background, I struggled for everything that I needed in order to pursue the sport. Right from worrying about my diet, kit and training equipment to managing the finance for travelling to the preparatory camps, everything was a challenge.”

Not easy

She also touched upon the subject of unequal opportunities for the girl child in the country.

“Being a girl, in India, it’s not easy to find the right encouragement in what she aspires to excel in. I also faced the same problem. I would like to believe that times are changing now. Look at our President. She has assumed the highest office and her being a lady did not prove a hindrance.

“Similarly, Ms. Sonia Gandhi leads such a big party and Ms. Shiela Dikshit has been Delhi’s Chief Minister for so many years. Like these ladies, girls in India can also realise their dreams provided they get opportunities.

“I wish and pray the mindset changes and the coming generation supports the girl child in every possible way,” is the appeal from this proud mother of two-year-old twin boys.

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