Rio Olympics medallists — shuttler P.V. Sindhu and wrestler Sakshi Malik — and gymnast Dipa Karmakar along with shooter Jitu Rai were conferred the prestigious Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna awards — the country’s highest sporting honour.
President Pranab Mukherjee presented the awards amid thunderous applause at the Darbar Hall of Rashtrapati Bhavan on the occasion of National Sports Day.
This was the first time in the history of the National Sports Awards that four athletes were chosen for the Khel Ratna award. In 2009, boxers Vijender Singh and M.C. Mary Kom and wrestler Sushil Kumar were given the award together.
Sindhu scripted history by winning the silver in women’s singles badminton in the recently concluded Rio Olympics, while Sakshi took bronze in the women’s 58kg freestyle category at the Games.
Sindhu’s coach Pullela Gopichand has already received the Arjuna Award in 1999. He has also been conferrd with the Dronacharya Award in 2009 and the Padma Bhushan in 2014.
Shooter Jitu failed to impress at the Rio Games, but the 2014 Commonwealth Games gold medallist had won numerous tournaments, including a gold at the Asian Games in Incheon.
All the Khel Ratna awardees received a medal, certificate and cash prize of Rs.7.5 lakh each.
President Mukherjee also gave away the Dronacharya awards to Dipa’s mentor Bisweshwar Nandi, along with Indian cricket Test skipper Virat Kohli’s coach Raj Kumar Sharma, athletics coach Nagapuri Ramesh, boxing coach Sagar Mal Dhayal, Pradeep Kumar (Swimming, lifetime) and Mahabir Singh (wrestling, lifetime).
They were given certificates and a cheque of Rs.5 lakh each.
Apart from this, 15 sportspersons were given the Arjuna Awards. Among them were Olympian runner Lalita Babar, boxer Shiva Thapa, shooter Apurvi Chandela, and hockey players V.R. Raghunath and Rani Rampal.
Wrestler Vinesh Phogat, who was stretchered out after dislocating her right knee half-way into the first period of her 48kg quarterfinal fight, was also given the Arjuna award.
Cricketer Ajinkya Rahane missed out on the ceremony as he is still in the US after the conclusion of the T20 International series against the West Indies.
Goalkeeper Subrata Paul was the lone footballer in the list of Arjuna awardees.
Veteran athlete Satti Geetha, hockey player Sylvanus Dung Dung and rower Rajendra Pralhad Shelke were conferred the Dhyanchand Award.
PM Modi spoke of his hope that sportsmanship will carry the country’s society forward.
“On National Sports Day, I congratulate all sports lovers across India & hope sports & sportsmanship will always shine in our society,” he wrote on Twitter on Sunday.
Sindhu, Thapa and other sportspersons thanked the Prime Minister for taking the initiative to develop sports in the country.
“It’s a great initiative started by the Prime Minister and I want to thank him for taking huge steps for the benefits of the athletes. This will definitely help because if you are eyeing a podium finish then preparations have to be started now,” Thapa said.
Dipa said that the joy has doubled as her coach Bishweshwar Nandi also received the Dronacharya award.
“It really feels great to receive the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award. Its a dream for every sportsperson in the country. The joy is doubled as my coach also got the Dronacharya award, I am very happy for him,” Dipa said after receiving the award.
Hockey stars Raghunath and Rani Rampal were elated to have been given the Arjuna award.
“This kind of recognition will only boost the morale of a player and also of the team. I am very happy that this time players from both the men and women’s team have been recognised. Someone told me this is the first time after 1997 that a hockey player from Karnataka is getting the Arjuna Award so this is doubly special for me. Receiving the Arjuna Award from the honourable President is a matter of pride and this will only motivate me further in my career,” Raghunath said in a Hockey India statement.
“When I started my journey as a hockey player at the age of nine in Shahbaad, I had never imagined I would scale such heights and be part of the Indian team that would play at the Olympics after 36 years. To be part of the Rio contingent was like a dream,” Rani said.
“I would like to thank Hockey India for their support and the Government of India for recognising my efforts. To receive this award among such high profile dignitaries and fellow sports people inside the Rashtrapati Bhavan is a huge honour and my parents and family are very excited for me. This award will help me stay motivated and ensure the team qualifies for the Tokyo Olympics,” Rani added.