The award was instituted in the year 1991-92 to honour outstanding sporting performance, whether by an individual or a team, across all sporting disciplines in a given year.
A selection committee consisting of eminent people affiliated to sports is constituted every year by the Ministry of Youth Affairs & Sports to evaluate sporting performances. Usually, performance between April 1 of one year to March 31 of the next year is considered. To qualify for this award, a sportsperson or team must take part in discipline that is included in the Olympic Games, the Asian Games or the Commonwealth Games. Professional sportsmen competing in billiards, snooker and chess are also eligible for this honour. A person can receive this award only once in his lifetime and must be nominated for the award by a member of parliament, state governments, the Sports Authority of India or national sports federations.The committee make a recommendation to the ministry, and after this is vetted at various levels in the government, the nominee is invested with the award by the President of India.
Whereas the trend has generally been for one outstanding sportsperson to be honoured every year, that is not mandatory. The award need not be bestowed if no candidate is found to have met historic standards of excellence. Two or more individuals or teams may be honoured in the same year. On two occasions, two individual sportspersons shared the accolade.