Aparna Popat, one of the 14 members of the jury for the first ESPN India Awards, on her voting choices:
With the nominees and the way it was spread out over the categories, I think to me it looked like there was enough thought put in, in terms of representation of athletes and sports, and not just going with the more popular options.
Honestly, I had to think about all of the nominees quite a lot. It's always challenging to think of the younger athletes, say the Target Tokyo or the Emerging Player, because you are looking forward. In the easier ones -- the sportsperson of the year, male and female -- we had athletes who have already performed at the pinnacle of their sport. Those were probably the easier ones, but Target Tokyo for me was the toughest one to pick.
My pick for moment of the year would be Mirabai Chanu's gold at the World Championships. Just because it really stood out -- the World Championships are the World Championships, and a gold is a gold! After we saw a bit of success with Karnam Malleswari in weightlifting, the sport itself has been tainted. Just for one athlete to come out and actually get that gold for the country, when everything seemed suspicious for a while, I think it requires tremendous confidence and this is a breakthrough performance, with all that had been happening in the background.
It has been over the years that Indian badminton has actually got its system going well, and I keep saying this -- though we attribute it to our expertise in coaching and our improved level of fitness, it's really the whole system that has come together. The ministry has been providing great support and the federation has been working well. Of course, the academies -- and Gopi [Pullela Gopichand] specifically has been doing great work with the players -- and the players themselves are putting in the hard work. We have had a lot of sponsors coming in, apart from the money that the ministry is pumping in. We have also got the eyeballs now -- there's a lot of money in the sport, and the federation is bringing international events into India, the Premier Badminton League happening, which is again a big part of the contribution to the success of our players. I think badminton as a sport, compared to other sports in our country, has got its act together.
I think the improved coverage of para sports is just down to the awareness that the media has created. The performances have been there but what was lacking was just acknowledging the fact that they are top-class athletes in their field and, to give them their due, it is that much harder for them. The acknowledgement was long overdue, and I am glad that through the media, that is happening.
(As told to Debayan Sen)
Aparna Popat: A forerunner to the most successful generation of Indian women badminton players, Popat was a silver medallist at the World Junior Championships and nine-time national champion who remained undefeated in the event until her retirement in 2006. She was ranked No. 16 in the world at her peak, won a silver medal in the women's singles at the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur and bronze medals in Manchester and Melbourne. Today, she is a well-recognised badminton commentator.