Bajrang Punia won the gold medal in the 2018 Commonwealth and Asian Games in wrestling. (Image credit: Twitter)
Asian and Commonwealth Games gold-medallist wrestler Bajrang Punia was on Friday nominated for the country's highest sporting honour -- the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award. His name was finalised by a 12-member selection committee on the opening day of a two-day meeting. The panel comprises the likes of Bhaichung Bhutia and MC Mary Kom among others. "Bajrang has been nominated for the Khel Ratna award. His name was a unanimous choice," a source close to the development told PTI.
The source also said that the 12-member panel may add another athlete for the top honour on Saturday besides finalising the names for the Arjuna and Dronacharya awards. "I had the achievements to deserve this award. I have always said that awards should go to the most deserving ones," Bajrang told PTI from Georgia where he is currently training.
Bajrang had last year won the gold medal in the 65-kg freestyle event at the Asian Games held in Jakarta. He had also won the gold medal in the same category at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. He is also a two-time medallist at the world championships and a strong medal hope for India at next year's Tokyo Olympics.
Punia defeated Kazakhstan's Sayatbek Okassov 12-7 in a nail-biting 65kg men's free style final in China in April 2019. Punia produced three gut wrench moves and an exposure move to take eight points after he began the attack with a two-point take down.
It was Bajrang's second gold at this championship, having won one in 2017. Overall, it was the fifth medal for the Indian in this tournament. With this performance, Bajrang yet again sounded a warning to his opponents that he will be a strong medal contender at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Punia had won the gold medal at the Dan Kolov-Nikola Petrov tournament in Ruse, Bulgaria and dedicated the victory to Indian Air Force (IAF) Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman. Punia, a World Championship silver medallist, overpowered Jordan Oliver of USA 12-3 in the 65kg freestyle final to begin the season on a resounding note in the Bulgarian city. The Indian also secured the maximum ranking points from the tournament. "I want to dedicate my gold to Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman. He has inspired me. I want to meet him one day and also shake hands with him," Punia tweeted after his victory.
The IAF pilot Varthaman returned to India from captivity in Pakistan on Friday night after a suspenseful wait lasting hours, which is being seen as a major step towards defusing a near-war situation triggered by India's retaliation following the Pulwama terror attack on February 14.