Nobody understands isolation better than Dutee Chand. In her village Chaka Gopalpur, she was born surrounded by it. Ringed by tall coconut trees, her house, now a double-storeyed solid structure, but back when she didn’t know that running was an occupation, was just another two-room home with a wide veranda. Poverty isolated the family from much of what was happening in the village. She had then said, “It was more like shutting yourself off. You didn’t have much of anything, even food, so isolation came easy. I and the others in the family knew how to close the shutters of the house.”
In Jakarta, she is all smiles. Coming down the steps of the Gelora Bung Karno, through the big iron gates, towards the path that leads to the fully-lit training tracks, the track lights gleam like Dutee’s million-watt smile. Outside of the glow, standing in its relative comfort, Dutee has just run 23 seconds flat in the 200m semi-finals. She chatters away disappointed that she doesn’t have time to go out into the city and see a little bit of Jakarta. The focus on sprints tires her. “It’s in my mind all the time,” she says. “I cannot stop thinking about it. I need to win, get medals. That is the only way I can feel I have answered back or lived to my potential.”
Her coach Nagapuri Ramesh stands a little distance away. He is worried they might miss the bus going back to the village. There is one leaving every 20 minutes or so. Ramesh keeps Dutee focused. He understands the mission. He knows what is required when you train in isolation. At the Gopichand Badminton Academy, Dutee lives among the badminton stars and is extremely thankful for that. When a nation and a federation deserted her, badminton star and super-coach Pullela Gopichand held out his hand. Dutee has never regretted that decision. In fact, without saying it, both Ramesh and Dutee acknowledge the contribution of Gopi in resurrecting a career that was tethering close to obscurity.
Being alone is a sinking feeling. Dutee had for months been pregnant with that feeling of being left out. An athlete orphaned, a human left to her own thoughts not only by those around her, but even by the Association that should have stood by her when they so wrongly accused her of failing a ‘gender’ test. She had refused to return to Patiala, a city built around the machismo of the north, where sly remarks not only hurt her but threatened to destroy the very soul she thrived on. Those were difficult days; spent questioning herself, the world and to an extreme whether it was worth living in it. Her sister, Saraswati, her rock in those dark days, said, “We were afraid she might hurt herself. There was always someone looking out for her.”
Hima Das is passing by and Dutee looks up and asks about her 200m result. Hima says something about disqualification and Dutee looks quizzically at Ramesh who says, “I don’t know. I didn’t see the race.” Dutee keeps looking at Hima’s receding figure awash in the lights. “She is a wonderful athlete and if they train her well, she is an Olympic prospect.” Galina waves as she crosses over from the dimly lit path onto the glow, headed towards Hima.
The start of the 200m is perfect. It’s very rare that Dutee goes off the block slowly. It’s a natural strength honed by hours of training on the starting blocks. The first 50-60 metres see the runners bunched together. It’s only on the bend that Bahrain’s Edidiong Odiong starts pumping those arms, propelling her to the front as the rest of the runners for a split second converge in a file before Dutee surges ahead, in front of China’s Wei Yongli who in June had run 22.97. As seconds tick away, Odiong is away, clearly superior. But the surprise element is Dutee, legs moving like propellers, she is now clearly in front. Head thrust ahead like a battering ram, Dutee is a blur in blue, flashing past the line as Yongli trails in her wake for a bronze, a step down from the silver she won four years back in Incheon.
But what clearly stands out between these top three runners is the relative non-competition and relying on training for Dutee while Odiong and Yongli have been competing abroad before coming in for the Asian Games. The Chinese did three races in England with two in Switzerland where she clocked for the first time below 11 seconds by running 10.99. In the 200m, the Chinese ran 22.97 and then in Sweden in June did a 23.09. Bahrain’s Edidiong Odiong, the 2016 U-20 Champion in the 200m with a stunning timing of 22.84 did seven competitions in the USA twice going below 23 seconds. Dutee had no competition at all; just her, Ramesh and some local athletic talent trying to beat her in vain. In Hyderabad, she trained for the Asian Games with no knowledge of any competing sprinter. Even though sprinting or running is acknowledged as a lonely pursuit, it still helps to understand the other seven runners standing beside you — their training patterns, competition readiness and a host of other quirks if you compete in at least a few races in Asia or in Europe.
“We try and keep it simple,” says Ramesh, not attempting to come into a discussion on exposure and the importance of it to an athlete. It’s a stunning achievement in a time where ‘exposure’ is meant to be key for high-performance. And here is a sprinter who has made ‘isolation’ a trademark and used it as a medal-winning tool in a discipline where competition is among the highest in the world.
The qualifying mark for the Commonwealth Games was kept at 11.15. Nobody in the country has ever done below Dutee’s 11.24. Yet the AFI felt that was achievable as qualification. “I couldn’t have achieved that. No one has ever done it, so why keep that as a qualifying mark,” asks Dutee. “Maybe, God had a different design. I was meant to pick medals at the Asian Games and I am happy for that.”
Her semi-final timing of 23 flat would have given Dutee a place in the CWG semi-finals and her 100m timing sixth spot in the final. It wasn’t about the medal, but the opportunity of running alongside Shaunae Miller-Uibo, Elaine Thompson, Biance Williams, Dina Asher Smith, Shericka Jackson was lost.
With the IAAF regulations on hyperandrogenism not affecting the 100m and 200m runners, the cloud of a constant threat that she could be barred anytime has lifted. “It’s a big relief,” she admits. “I could train in peace. Ramesh sir and I did 5-6 hours of training every day and that has produced results here.”
It’s laughable when going through the YouTube 200m run that you hear the Indian commentator sitting in the Sony studios saying, “Sprint queen is born.” The run of 11.24 came in Almaty, the 11.30 coming in Delhi; all of them two years back. What most very conveniently forget is the ostracisation, the equivalent of cutting off her feet when she should have been flying. She has emerged from that tunnel of darkness. Dutee has sprinted out of every conceivable pigeonhole we pushed her into. India has to realise she is no more a novelty act. She is the Act.
Updated Date: Aug 30, 2018 13:44 PM