Around this time every year, the nominations for the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award become a topic of discussion. Instituted in 1991, this is India’s biggest sports award. Considering the rule that says any individual, sports federation or state government can propose names, it is not surprising that this generates controversy. Mostly, it is about the credentials of candidates. Things turn nasty sometimes, when distinguished athletes start accusing others of nepotism and favouring the less deserving. It has not been that bad this year yet. But names of athletes who have little to show for on the big stage have popped up for consideration.
It is important to note there are certain flaws in the concept of the Khel Ratna, making it prone to controversies. There is a rule that this cannot be conferred on an individual more than once. Given that India does not produce world beaters in sports every year, this clause restricts the field. For example, Viswanathan Anand and Abhinav Bindra were awarded Khel Ratna before they had won the World Championship and Olympic gold respectively. In the years they won the biggest prize, the award went to someone who achieved less. P V Sindhu was India’s biggest sports achiever last year. But the badminton world champion cannot be considered as she won it in 2016. There are no such restrictions for awards like the Grammy or Oscar.
Then, Khel Ratna is given almost every year. In 28 years, there were just two instances (2008 and 2014) when it was not presented because the sports ministry did not find anybody deserving. There were many more years when this principle was not followed. As a result, the Khel Ratna on occasions went to undeserving candidates. This is inevitable if ‘someone has to get it’ becomes the rule instead of ‘only the deserving will get it’. Further, there is no fixed criteria. Usually, the recipients are World Championship/Olympic medallists in regular and para disciplines or cricketers. There are also instances when success at the Asian level led to this award. Until the rigidities and anomalies are removed, this will continue to make headlines for unwanted reasons.