New Delhi: Paralympic silver-medallist Deepa Malik on Thursday became the first Indian woman para-athlete and the oldest to be conferred the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award but training commitments kept co-awardee Bajrang Punia away from the ceremony at the Rashtrapati Bhawan here.
Malik, who won a silver medal in the shot put F53 category in the 2016 Rio Paralympics, was joint winner of the top honour with Asian and Commonwealth Games champion Punia, who is in Russia to prepare for the upcoming World Championships in Kazakhstan.
Malik became only the second para-athlete after double Paralympic gold-medallist javelin thrower Devendra Jhajharia, who received the recognition in 2017, to have won the prestigious award. At 49, she also became the oldest athlete ever to have claimed the honour.
"I am very happy. This whole journey has been more about changing the attitude of people towards disability and the hidden potential in people with disability," Malik said.
"I think the award is going to be a huge inspiration to women athletes in disability. It took 70 years for independent India to win a medal by a woman athlete in Paralympics," she added.
World Championships bronze-medallist shuttler B Sai Praneeth, woman cricketer Poonam Yadav, Asian Games gold-winner heptathlete Swapna Barman, footballer Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, two-time world silver-medallist boxer Sonia Lather, Asian Games silver-medallist equestrian Fouaad Mirza, motorsports ace Gaurav Gill and Kabaddi captain Ajay Thakur were among the 19 sportspersons who received the Arjuna Award from President Ram Nath Kovind here.
Malik became fourth-time lucky as she was ignored for the award for the past three years, leading her to question and criticise the decision.
Prominent absentees from the event, apart from Punia, were cricketer Ravindra Jadeja, Asian Games gold-medallist shot-putter Tejinder Pal Singh Toor, silver-winner quartermiler Mohammed Anas and shooter Anjum Moudgil, all of who were picked for the Arjuna award this year.
Jadeja is currently on national duty with the Indian Test team in the Caribbean. Toor, on the other hand, is training in Europe while Anas is competing in the National Inter-State Athletics Championships in Lucknow right now.
The National Sports Awards are given on August 29 every year to commemorate the birth anniversary of hockey legend Major Dhyan Chand.
India national men's football team goalkeeper Gurpreet said his Arjuna Award will inspire the future generation.
"I want to dedicate this award to the seniors who made this possible for me. This award is for the future generation of Indian football. I hope this will act as a catalyst to inspire them," he said.
Heptathlete Swapna Barman said winning the Arjuna Award was a dream-come-true moment for her.
"It's a dream-come-true moment for me. I would like to thank the Athletics Federation of India for recommending my name. This award will inspire me to achieve greater things in future," she said.
While the Khel Ratna award carries a prize purse of Rs 7.5 lakh, the Arjuna awardees are given Rs 5 lakh each, along with citations.
Besides the Khel Ratna and Arjuna awards, the President also gave away Dronacharya and Dhyan Chand awards to coaches, the Tenzing Norgay National Adventure awards, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Trophy and Rashtriya Khel Protsahan Puraskar.
Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju, HRD Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal, Sports Seceretary Radhey Shyam Julaniya, Sports Authority of India Director General Sandeep Pradhan, Indian Olympic Association President Narinder Batra and Secretary General Rajeev Mehta were some of the dignitaries present at the function.
List of Awardees:
Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award: Deepa Malik (para-athletics), Bajrang Punia (wrestling)
Arjuna Awards: Ravindra Jadeja (cricket), Mohammed Anas Yahiya (athletics), Gurpreet Singh Sandhu (football), Sonia Lather (boxing), Chinglensana Singh Kangujam (hockey), S Bhaskaran (bodybuilding), Ajay Thakur (kabaddi), Anjum Moudgil (shooting), B Sai Praneeth (badminton), Tajinder Pal Singh Toor (athletics), Pramod Bhagat (para sports-badminton), Harmeet Rajul Desai (table tennis), Pooja Dhanda (wrestling), Fouaad Mirza (equestrian), Simran Singh Shergill (polo), Poonam Yadav (cricket), Swapna Burman (athletics), Sundar Singh Gurjar (para sports-athletics) and Gaurav Singh Gill (motorsports).
Dronacharya Award (regular category): Mohinder Singh Dhillon (athletics), Sandeep Gupta (table tennis) and Vimal Kumar (badminton).
Dronacharya Award (lifetime category): Sanjay Bhardwaj (cricket), Rambir Singh Khokar (kabaddi) and Mezban Patel (hockey).
Dhyan Chand Award: Manoj Kumar (wrestling), C Lalremsanga (archery), Arup Basak (table tennis), Nitten Kirrtane (tennis) and Manuel Fredricks (hockey).