Olympic heroes boxer Vijender Singh, wrestler Sushil Kumar, along with four-time world champion woman pugilist M C Mary Kom, were on Saturday conferred the prestigious Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award in a glittering ceremony in New Delhi.
For the first time in the history of national sports awards, three sportspersons were individually bestowed India's highest sporting honour, which comes with an enhanced cash prize of Rs 7.5 lakh and a newly-designed statuette.
It was also a red letter day for 15 other sportspersons, who received the Arjuna award from President Pratibha Patil at the Ashok Hall in the Rashtrapati Bhawan.
Prominent among them were cricketer Gautam Gambhir, world number seven badminton player Saina Nehwal, Asian chess champion Tania Sachdev and hockey player Ignace Tirkey.
Like the Khel Ratna winners, Arjuna awardees also got a newly-designed statuette, along with citations and an enhanced cash prize of Rs five lakh each.
For the first time in six years, a cricketer -- Gambhir -- was bestowed the Arjuna award. Since 2003, when off-spinner Harbhajan Singh was given the honour, no male cricketer had been included in the Arjuna awards list.
Gambhir is currently the world number one Test batsman in ICC rankings and has been consistently doing well as an opener.
Saina, on the other hand, has risen meteorically in the international circuit over the past couple of years winning two premier events. She also made it to quarterfinals in her Olympic debut in Beijing.
Saina's mentor and former badminton player Pullela Gopichand, India's assistant boxing coach at the Beijing Olympics Jaidev Bisht and Sushil's coach Satpal Singh were among the four Dronacharya awardees.
They also received a statuette, citation and an enhanced cash prize of Rs five lakh.
"It's the biggest moment of my career and I feel honoured," said Beijing Olympics bronze medallist Vijender, who will leave for the World championships in Italy on Sunday morning.
"I am happy that wrestling has got recognition. It is a big achievement for me," added Sushil, who also won a bronze medal, India's first in 54 years, in Beijing.
Four-time world champion Mary Kom dedicated her award to her two-year-old twin sons K Rechungvar Kom and K Khupneivar Kom.
"This is for my sons. They are my life. Had they been older, I would have brought them here," the 27-year-old world champion said.
The Sports Ministry also instituted a new award this year, 'The Rashtriya Khel Protsahan Puruskar', which was shared by Tata Steel Limited and the Railways Sports Promotion Board in different categories.
After the furore caused by Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Harbhajan Singh's no-show at the Padma awards this years, the sports ministry had issued stern guidelines asking athletes to inform in advance if they were to remain absent.
Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award: M C Mary Kom (Boxing), Vijender Singh (Boxing) Sushil Kumar (Wrestling).
Arjuna Awards: Mangal Singh Champia (Archery), Sinimole Paulose (Athletics), Saina Nehwal (Badminton), L Sarita Devi (Boxing), Tania Sachdev (Chess), Gautam Gambhir (Cricket), Ignace Tirkey (Hockey), Surinder Kaur (Hockey), Pankaj Navanath Shirsat (Kabaddi), Satish Joshi (Rowing), Ronjan Sodhi (Shooting), Poulomi Ghatak (Table Tennis), Yogeshwar Dutt (Wrestling), Girdhari Lal Yadav (Yachting), Parul D. Parmar (Badminton, Disabled).
Dhyan Chand Awards: Ishar Singh Deol (Athletics), Satbir Singh Dahya (Wrestling).
Dronacharya Awards: Pullela Gopichand (Badminton), Jaidev Bisht (Boxing), S Baldev Singh (Hockey), Satpal (Wrestling).
Rashtriya Khel Protsahan Puruskar: Community Sports Identification and Nurturing of Budding Young Talent (TATA Steel Ltd), Financial Support for Sports Excellence (None qualified), Establishment and Management of Sports Academies of Excellence (TATA Steel Ltd), Employment of Sportspersons and sports welfare measures (Railways Sports Promotion Board).