29 July : Breaking from tradition, the government on Wednesday decided to confer the prestigious Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna on three sportspersons — boxers M C Mary Kom and Vijender Singh and wrestler Sushil Kumar — to honour the country’s Olympic heroes.
The country’s highest sporting honour, often mired in selection controversies, is generally given to only one person but has been shared by two sportspersons in 1996-97 (Leander Paes and N Kunjarani Devi) and 2002-03 (Anjali Bhagwat and K M Beenamol).
This is the first time that three have been individually picked for the coveted title for their outstanding performance in 2008-09.
Four-time world champion M C Mary Kom and Olympic bronze medallist Vijender are the first boxers to get the award which carries an enhanced prize money of Rs 7.5 lakh and a citation.
Also a bronze medallist from Beijing Olympics, Sushil ended wrestling’s 56-year-old wait for a medal at the event.
“Normally, the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award is given to only one sportsperson in a year. However, taking into consideration the spectacular performance of Vijender and Sushil, the Government has accepted the recommendation of the Selection Committee to confer the Award on both of them as a special case, in addition Mary Kom,” the sports ministry said in a statement.
Star cricketer Gautam Gambhir, badminton sensation Saina Nehwal, double trap shooter Ranjan Sodhi, and hockey player Ignace Tirkey were among the 15 athletes selected for the Arjuna awards.
The 20-year-old Saina is currently the world number six after winning the Indonesian Super Series and a couple of other titles on the circuit.
Former All England champion and Saina’s coach Pullela Gopichand and Satpal Singh, who trained Sushil for Beijing Olympics, were among those picked for the Dronacharya award.
The awards would be given away by President Pratibha Patil at a glittering function at the Rashtrapati Bhawan on 29th August, celebrated as the National Sports Day.
The 25-year-old Mary Kom, a pin weight (46kg) pugilist, has won medals at all the five World Championships held so far, including an unprecedented fourth successive gold that she clinched at last year’s edition held in China.
The Manipuri had previously won the Arjuna award in 2004 before being conferred with the Padma Shri in 2006.
The mother of two, who is International Boxing Association’s ambassador for women’s boxing, was overlooked for last year’s Khel Ratna, which had gone to Indian cricket captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
Vijender (75kg) became the first Indian boxer to clinch an Olympic medal when he won the middleweight bronze in Beijing. The 22-year-old won a bronze medal at the Asian Championships in China last month.