Run, Dutee, run

Shriya Mohan | Updated on March 09, 2020

India’s fastest woman is pushing the boundaries to further her sport and shatter gender and sexuality stereotypes

The four athletes, chattering away between mouthfuls of breakfast, pause. “She’s here,” one of them exclaims,” rushing to the window at the sound of a car approaching the quiet lanes of Bhubaneswar’s Patia residential colony.

Dutee Chand gets a rock-star welcome each day when she returns home from her morning practice. Chand is India’s fastest female sprinter, and holds the national record in the 100-metre dash. She clocks the distance in 11.22 seconds: that’s roughly the time it would take someone to say the English alphabet twice.

Chand is training hard to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. In 2016, her record was 11.32 seconds; she brought it down by 100 milliseconds last October — no easy feat in a 100-m race, where every millisecond counts. Her goal is to shave it by another 100 milliseconds to make it past the 11.15 Olympic qualifier benchmark this year.

“It’s tough. It takes years to conquer each millisecond,” the 24-year old sprinter says.

She is 4’9” tall, but carries an aura of invincibility. It’s hard to tell whether that comes from the confident bounce in her walk, her flailing brawny arms — as if she’s about to dash forward — or her tight ponytail with not a strand out of place. Or, perhaps, it’s simply her unbreakable smile. She has been on the track since 6 am and is still full of energy at 11 am. For the young, starry-eyed athletes at the breakfast table, who made it from the interiors of poverty-stricken Odisha to the capital for training sessions enabled by Chand, she is an idol.

She has taken the large, two-storeyed house, a few metres from her own government-provided bungalow, on rent, to give aspiring athletes a chance to make their mark on the tracks. Chand currently hosts ten young athletes, providing them with lodging, food and a personal coach.

“When kids come to me and say, ‘Dutee, I want to be like you’, I take a trial to test their potential and then take them in. I don’t want them to struggle the way I did,” she says.

From Brahmani to Rio de Janeiro

One of seven siblings born to a weaver’s family in Chaka Gopalpur village, 90 km from Bhubaneswar, Chand grew up in dire poverty. “Father earned ₹100 a day. It showed in the protein-deficient food we were fed — largely water (fermented) rice and aloo chutney,” she says.

Always scrawny, but full of energy and itching to break free, she followed in the footsteps of her sister Saraswati, ten years her senior, who took to athletics, dreaming of a brighter future. She was a State- and then a national-level sprinter before settling down into a permanent job with the police. She would drag Dutee to practice.

Chand would be up at 4 am, running barefoot — for she had no shoes — on the mud banks of the Brahmani River until sunrise, when she would wrap up her portion of domestic chores and head to school.

Chand remembers the first time she was given a plate of “proper food” — it was at her hostel, in 2006. She was 10 years old and had won a sports scholarship to a government school in Bhubaneswar. That food could be served in so many varieties and courses was something to behold. For the first time she ate fruits, chicken, mutton and other protein-packed preparations. “I would be wracked with guilt when I ate alone. I would pocket what I could and take it back to share with my family,” she says.

At 17, she was the first Indian to have reached the 100-m finals at the International Association of Athletics Federations’ (IAAF) World Youth Championships. In 2014, she was the first Indian athlete to win two gold medals at the Asian Junior Championships in Taiwan. She was a national champion in the 100-m and 200-m dash.

By 2016, she qualified for the Rio Olympics. But the opportunity came laden with problems. In the days leading to the competition, she and her coach, N Ramesh, were frantically trying to get money so that they could run in a good pair of spikes. Four days before she left for Brazil, a Good Samaritan in Germany sent her a pair.

Her coach could not accompany her because he had not received accreditation for the Games. She travelled by herself in economy class for 36 hours with three stops; the sports officials had booked themselves into business class. At her first Olympic event, the most important day of her life, she was eliminated in the first round.

“I was really scared and nervous. This is a completely different atmosphere, everyone was so (much) taller than me,” she tweeted after her exit, stirring up national debates on the sorry state of training and support given to India’s Olympians.

“Initially, nobody remembers you for winning or losing, but once you have shown international success, people don’t forgive you easily (for losing),” she says.

Battles to seal faultlines

But fear is a rare emotion for Chand. She shot into the spotlight in 2014 for a victory that only she could have made possible. In the days before her debut in the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, her first big international event as an adult, she was medically tested. Chand, then 18, thought it was the usual drug test. But when the medical tests conducted included an ultrasound, chromosome analysis, an MRI scan and a gynaecological exam, she was suspicious.

What they hadn’t told her was that the IAAF had conducted a gender test because they thought her performance was too stellar for a “woman” of her height and build. Due to a higher-than-usual presence of naturally produced androgens, mainly testosterone, in her blood samples, the officials deemed her too ‘male’ to race in the female category. She was banned from contesting in both the Commonwealth and Asian Games that year.

But how can one prohibit a natural biological phenomenon? Are men who produce more testosterone than other men weeded out? To Chand, this was brutal injustice.

So, she fought. With the help of Kolkata-based gender activist Payoshi Mitra, who had convinced the Sports Authority of India (SAI) to back the case, Chand approached the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne, Switzerland, to challenge the ban. The move was a battle against misogyny, the IAAF, journalists who asked if she was actually a man, and against every voice that questioned her integrity, her sporting prowess and her gender.

“Boys have so much testosterone. If that’s an advantage, then why aren’t we winning Olympic medals in the men’s athletics 100-m category? Usain Bolt also needs to put in the hard work. I get all my strength from my strong training,” she says.

On July 25, 2015, in a landmark ruling, the CAS overturned Chand’s ban and suspended the hyperandrogenism rule. She could compete again.

The ruling was a shot in the arm for women athletes around the world subjected to similar discrimination. Praise poured in from every corner of the world. “They all said: ‘Dutee, you’re not just a champion on the track, but in life too’,” Chand recalls with a big smile.

In Gopalpur, she says, people often said that she was a boy disguised as a girl to win at the games. “But I made them understand. Today, I get a hero’s welcome,” she says.

The feeling of elation bettered her game. In 2018, she won the silver medal in the women’s 100-m race at the Asian Games in Jakarta. It was India’s first medal in the category in 20 years. Chand also won silver in the 200-m race.

But Chand had other battles to fight, too. Months after the Supreme Court decriminalised same-sex relationships in September 2018, she became the first openly gay Indian sportsperson. “No one can win without love,” she had said to Time magazine.

“I found somebody I wanted to spend my life with. The ruling gave me the guts to tell the world. Now I’m waiting for same-sex marriages to be legalised so that my partner and I can marry,” she says. The two met when they were in the same government hostel in Standard 7, and have been close ever since. Her partner loves her sport, believes in her, and constantly pushes her to better her performance, Chand adds.

In the face of the stigma associated with homosexuality in rural Odisha, Chand's lone voice started an unprecedented conversation.

Dreams come true

If material symbols of success are anything to go by, a mention of Chand’s navy-blue BMW car is enough to light up her eyes. She used to plead for plastic toy cars when her parents took her to a village fair. But her mother always insisted that they couldn’t afford to buy her one. “Grow up and buy your own,” she would say. In 2018, after her two silver medals at the Asian Games, the Odisha government gave her prize money of ₹3 crore. “My friends told me that I had become a celebrity now and I needed to own something that celebrated my status,” she says. She spent a sixth of the amount on her car, and fulfilled a life dream.

With ₹75 lakh, she built her parents a large ten-bedroom house with attached toilets, air-conditioners and other modern facilities. “It’s the prettiest house in my village. I made sure it had eight rooms for the family and two rooms for guests,” she says.

But her biggest dream is to enter politics. “When poor people want to put their kids into sports, they don’t have the financial means nor access to training infrastructure. There is a vacuum. I want to do something to build the future of young athletes in Odisha. Sports is the sureshot way our kids can lift themselves out of poverty and win laurels for the country,” she says.

Published on March 09, 2020

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