October 04, 2007

Wanted: Sense of fair play and justice

By H Natarajan

Twenty six years back, a spirited man refused a coveted National honour. He was still in his 30s when he had won the World Amateur and World Open Billiards in 1977. Four years later, he won the World Amateur Billiards again.

Then he did the unthinkable. He spurned a coveted national honour that most of countryman would die for.

“I heard that my good friend Sunil Gavaskar was being offered the Padma Bhushan while I was asked to accept the Padma Shri. I have the highest respect for Sunny, but at that point of time I thought my achievement in winning three world titles were as big, if not bigger, than Sunny’s achievements and I thought I deserved the Padma Bhushan. Hence I refused the Padma Shri,” Michael Ferreira told in a tête-à-tête with me.

Ferreira went on to win a fourth world title in 1983. His name now was recommended for the Padma Bhushan. When Ferreira went to meet Mrs Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister, after winning his fourth world title, he was informed by the Sports Secretary that though his name has been put up for the Padma Bhushan Award there was a noting in the recommendation that he had refused the Padma Shri earlier. “That could go against you,” the babu noted. Mercifully, Ferreira got the Padma Bhushan.

More than decades two later, it’s obvious that the non-cricketing sportspersons are still an aggrieved lot. It’s now the turn of Pankaj Advani, the reigning world billiard champion, to decline the Karnataka State Government’s Ekalavya Award. "If I had received the award earlier, I'd have accepted. It's a little too late. The award has come after I received the Arjuna and the Khel Ratna Awards… I have won four World titles and there’s no word of appreciation or grants for my effort. They wasted no time in other sports such as cricket, where they announced awards of Rs. 5 lakh. Why this indifference"? Advani asked.

Advani’s public protest comes in the wake of Karnataka hockey players threatening to go on hunger strike to highlight their anger at not getting due recognition after they India beat South Korea in the Asia Cup. “Does a sportsperson need to go on hunger strike to get government recognition or do all of us need to play cricket", Advani asked sarcastically.

He cannot be blamed for expressing his feelings. Ajit Agarkar was a big flop in the T20 World Cup, but he raked in over a crore which included handsome purse by the state government. Naturally it will rankle when a player, winning an individual sport and a world title at that, finds his effort going unrecognized and unrewarded when failures in team sports are fawned and feted.

Juxtapose India’s triumph in the World T20 Championship with Vishwanathan Anand’s triumph at the World Chess Champion a few days later. Even Anand – without questions the biggest-ever achiever in Indian sports – who is known for his impeccable conduct and choice of words was forced to say: “It would be interesting to see the kind of reception on return home.”

He can hope to get a welcome worthy of his achievement only if the powers that be find that there is an opportunity for them to bask in reflected glory. We saw how the BCCI honchos, many with heavy political affiliations, hog centre stage while the real heroes were pushed into the background – literally and figuratively.

RK Khanna, who ruled AITA unquestioned and unrivalled, best exemplifies the quintessential head of an Indian sports federation. Vijay Amritraj provides proof of that in his autobiography: “ When (Ramanathan) Krishnan led India to the Challenge Round (title round) of the Davis Cup against Australia in 1966, Khanna was awarded the Padma Shri and Krishnan got a handshake. When Krish, Anand and I took India through to the final again in 1974, - unhappily against South Africa in a final that was never allowed to be played - Khanna received an even more prestigious honour, the Padma Bhushan.”

The story is the same in just about every sport in India. M Somaiya, the former India hockey captain, told me that when India won the hockey gold at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, all he got, apart from the Shiv Chattrapathi Award, was thousand rupees from the Maharashtra state government M Somaiya, the former India hockey captain, told me that when India won the hockey gold at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, “all I got was, apart from the Shiv Chattrapathi Award, Rs 1,000 from the state government.”

When Om Agrawal won the World Snooker title in 1984 Doordarshan did cover his triumphant return. Three years had passed by when Om told me that he had still not ever been interviewed by DD!

If the media can rightfully claim their role in popularizing cricket to be a money-spinner then they will also have to accept that they have not done full justice to other sports. No wonder Pullela Gopichand, the former All England champion, once said: "I am well known in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, but not in my own country."

Spare a thought for the Anands, Advanis and other non-cricketing heroes. They too have made us puff our chest as proud Indians.

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