Star cricketer Rohit Sharma, wrestler Vinesh Phogat, and women's hockey captain Rani Rampal were among an unprecedented five picked for the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna, while another unparalleled 29 were recommended for the Arjuna award by the sports ministry's selection committee here on Tuesday. Paddler Manika Batra and Rio Paralympic gold-winning high jumper Mariyappan Thangavelu were the other two recommended for the country's highest sporting honour by a 12-member selection committee. Rampal was a late addition to the initial list of four. For the Arjuna, India pacer Ishant Sharma, recurve archer Atanu Das, women's hockey team player Deepika Thakur, kabaddi player Deepak Hooda, and tennis player Divij Sharan were among the 29 short-listed, an official source told PTI after the selection committee's meeting here.
The 31-year-old Ishant has played 97 Tests and 80 ODIs for India, grabbing over 400 international wickets. This is the first time in the history of awards that five athletes have been recommended for the top sporting accolade with the final decision resting on sports minister Kiren Rijiju. In 2016, four athletes -- star shuttler P V Sindhu, gymnast Dipa Karmakar, shooter Jitu Rai, and wrestler Sakshi Malik -- were collectively given this award. The 33-year-old Rohit will only be the fourth cricketer after Sachin Tendulkar, just-retired Mahendra Singh Dhoni and current skipper Virat Kohli to be conferred with the Khel Ratna. Tendulkar was the first Indian cricketer to get the honour in 1998, followed by Dhoni in 2007 and Kohli in 2018. Kohli won it jointly with weightlifter Mirabai Chanu.
The committee, comprising the likes of Virender Sehwag and former hockey captain Sardar Singh, met at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) headquarters here and finalised the names after deliberations that took up the first half of the day. While Rohit has been recognised for his ever-rising accomplishments with the bat, Vinesh has been rewarded for her gold medals in the 2018 Commonwealth and Asian Games besides a bronze in the 2019 Asian Wrestling Championships.
Terming it as one of the biggest moments of her career, Vinesh promised to live upto the expectations associated with the award."It's a proud moment for me. It was a long wait but it was worthwhile. If God permits I would live up to the reputation associated with this award," Vinesh said. Thangavelu got the recognition for his gold medal in the 2016 Rio Paralympics in the T42 high jump category. T42 applies to athletes with single above the knee amputations or a disability that is comparable. Star paddler Manika was recommended for her remarkable performance in 2018, a year during which she won the Commonwealth Games gold medal and Asian Games bronze in women's singles.
Rani is only the third and lone female hockey player to have been recommended for the honour. Before Rani, only Dhanraj Pillay (2000) and Sardar Singh (2017) won the prestigious award. Sardar, incidentally, was a part of the 12-member selection committee this year. "Rani's name was a late inclusion after some members wanted a discussion on her nomination. After due deliberation, everyone felt that she deserves the recognition for her achievements," a source close to the development told PTI. The period of consideration for the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award, India's highest sporting honour, is between January 1, 2016 to December 31, 2019. During this period, Rani led the team to historic victories in the Women's Asia Cup in 2017, silver at the 2018 Asian Games and played a critical role in the FIH Olympic Qualifiers in 2019 by scoring the deciding goal that helped India qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. The team also climbed to a career-best ninth the FIH world rankings.
In a first, this year's National Sports Awards ceremony, which normally held at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, is likely to be conducted virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with all the winners logging in from their respective places to hear their names being announced on August 29. August 29 is celebrated as the National Sports Day to commemorate the birth anniversary of hockey wizard Major Dhyan Chand. The Khel Ratna comprises a medallion, a certificate, and a cash prize of Rs 7.5 lakh. The Arjuna award comes with a cash prize of Rs 5,00,000, a bronze statue of mythological hero Arjuna and a scroll. The National Sports Awards also include the Dronacharya and the Dhyan Chand honours for achievements in coaching. They are conferred every year by the President of India.