New Delhi: Tennis star Sania Mirza was today conferred with the prestigious Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna — the country’s highest sporting honour — while shooting sensation was among the Arjuna award recipients in a glittering ceremony at the Rashtrapati Bhawan here. President Pranab Mukherjee presented the award to Sania, clad in a maroon saree and blue blazer, amid thunderous applause at the Darbar hall where Sports Minister Sarbananda Sonowal was among the attendees.
Sania became the second tennis player to receive the country’s highest sporting honour after Leander Paes on a day when Sports Ministry was fighting a court case that raised questions against its process of selecting the awardees. The President also gave away the Arjuna awards even as the line-up was low on star power in the absence of cricketer Rohit Sharma, who missed the ceremony alongside boxer Mandeep Jangra and quarter miler M R Poovamma. In all, the (retired) Justice V K Bali led panel had recommended 17 names for Arjuna.
Sania, who attracted the loudest applause from the esteemed gathering at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, received a medal, certificate and cash prize of Rs. 7.5 lakh. She had flown in just to receive the award ahead of the US Open starting in New York on Monday. The Arjuna awardees received statuettes, certificates and award money of Rs.5 lakh each.
The ceremony, however, was shrouded in controversy with the ignored athletes and coaches not accepting the recommendations of the Ministry-appointed panel. Just when it seemed there would be no controversy in the lead up to this year’s function, para-athlete H N Girisha approached the Karnataka High Court challenging Sania’s recommendation for Khel Ratna.
While Girisha will still be hopeful of getting the award later, another court case pending is of wrestling coach Vinod Kumar, who went to Delhi High Court claiming he was more deserving for the Dronacharya award than his rival Anoop Singh, whose name was recommended by the government-appointed panel. It will be known in the next weeks whether he gets the Dronacharya or not.
As it panned out, the haggling for awards continued against expectations of the government which had introduced a new points system to ensure free and transparent selection process. Nonetheless, the ceremony provided pride and motivation for athletes who were eventually bestowed with the honour.
While Khel Ratna was awarded after a year’s gap, 17 were recommended for Arjuna against the usual number of 15 or less. It was a proud moment for ace pistol shooter Jitu Rai, who was hard to ignore considering his stupendous success in the last two years. The 28-year-old had won gold in the 2014 Commonwealth Games as well as a gold in the Maribor World Cup in the same year, besides becoming the number one shooter in the world. Also there was Dipa Karmakar, India’s first woman gymnast to win a medal in the Commonwealth Games, besides hockey star P R Sreejesh and wrestler Babita.
Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna winner: Sania Mirza
The Arjuna awardees for 2015: P R Sreejesh (hockey), Dipa Karmakar (gymnastics), Jitu Rai (shooting), Sandeep Kumar (archery), Mandeep Jangra (boxing), Babita (wrestling), Bajrang (wrestling), Rohit Sharma (cricket), K Srikanth (badminton), Swarn Singh Virk (rowing), Satish Sivalingam (weightlifting), Santhoi Devi (wushu), Sharath Gaekwad (para-sailing), M R Poovamma (athletics), Manjeet Chhillar (kabaddi), Abhilasha Mhatre (kabaddi), Anup Kumar Yama (rollerskating).
Droncharya awardees: Naval Singh (athletics-para-sports), Anoop Singh (wrestling), Harbans Singh (athletics-lifetime), Swatantar Raj Singh (boxing- lifetime), Nihar Ameen (swimming-lifetime)
Dhyan Chand awardees: Romeo James (hockey), Shiv Prakash Mishra (tennis), T.P.P. Nair (volleyball).