The agony of being Dutee Chand: India's record-breaking sprinter lives on with scars of sexual identity crisis

Editor's note: This article was originally published on 9 June, 2017. It is being republished in light of Dutee Chand winning the silver medal at the women's 100 metres event at the Asian Games 2018.

It’s late afternoon at the National Institute of Sport, Patiala. Just off the 8-lane track, is a large patch of grassy field with trees planted every ten-metres. It’s searingly hot. The track and field competition – the Federation Cup begins at 5 pm. It’s 4 pm but feels like early afternoon as the sun beats down. The wind has picked up but its hot and stings your skin. Athletes are lying under the trees, wet towels and moist linen covering their faces. Some are already stretching. Most of them are used to these tough and extreme summer temperatures. Since independence, Indian sport has not yet built an 8-lane training and competition facility in the hills of Himachal Pradesh or Uttrakhand where temperatures could almost be equal to that found in Europe.

Anything could be better than the 44 degrees currently baking the NIS Patiala. A short, pony tailed woman is jogging on the sides of the tree lined grass patch. She is in black tights, running shoes and a white-rimmed, cobalt blue with fiery orange ends, Oakley glares. Dutee Chand, National Record holder in the women’s 100 metres (11.24) jogs for a good 20 minutes. As she passes through athletes sitting, stretching or simply lying down, she does get a stare or two. Some wait for her to pass, then twist and look back at her receding jogging form. Her coach N Ramesh, a former conditioning coach with the men’s hockey team at the 2000 Sydney Olympics stands on the road parallel to the grass patch talking on his phone.

By now, Dutee has started her stretches. This will take her nearly half an hour before she runs the 100 metres final. A day before, she had finished with a silver in the 200 metres final, second to Srabani Nanda, another sprinter from her own state Odisha. Both are not the best of friends. In fact, they hardly acknowledge each other. In a sprinter’s world, the ‘self’ is priority. The focus is so much on winning and keeping a record going that competitors are just numbers you run against and win. The voice of the announcer floats across the tracks. It’s the start of the women’s 100 metres. “I think she will improve on her timing,” says Ramesh, her coach, as he starts to walk towards the track. There are no last minute instructions to Dutee. The Olympic sprinter will quietly pick up her gear and walk towards the starting blocks which are now in position. It’s a 200 metre walk down to the starting point.

In the heats, Dutee Chand ran 11.7, not being pushed by any runner, coasting to the finish line. In the semi-finals, she powered ahead from the start to win in 11.56

 The agony of being Dutee Chand: Indias record-breaking sprinter lives on with scars of sexual identity crisis

Dutee Chand

It’s the crack of the starter’s gun. The runners are off. To the naked eye, Dutee seems to have a not so perfect start. At the 20 metres mark, Srabani Nanda and Dutee seem together. Shoulders thrust ahead as the sprinters get into the smooth wind-mill like motion of legs and arms pumping away. Dutee is already leaning a little forward, her shoulder muscles tense as her arms frequency is almost matching her stride length. Srabani is just a fraction of a stride behind while the others are now competing for the 3rd spot. Fans are already spilling on the tracks a good 20 metres after the finish line. Dutee is now flying, a human body, synchronized to extract every bit of speed from that 5’3’ body. It’s the finish line as Dutee dips and yet it seems close. From the front, it’s a single file of runners. Seen at 90 degrees, Dutee has dipped in at 11.48, Srabani Nanda at 11.57 and Merlin K Joseph from Kerala at 11.68. For a brief second, Dutee and Srabani touch palms. It’s a gesture. But rare. Dutee’s timings in three 100 metre races are: 11.7, 11.56 and 11.48. She needs 11.26 to qualify for the World Championships in London. “It’s difficult on this track,” says Dutee after the race. “I did 11.30 in Delhi a couple of weeks ago. Maybe, on that track, I could have had a shot. But now maybe, in a few international meets abroad before I reach Bhubaneshwar for the Asian Track and Field.”

It’s 2017 and around 26 July the two-year period granted to the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) to re-open the gender case against Dutee will come up. One doesn’t know if the IAAF has enough grounds to prove that the excess Testosterone that Dutee’s body produces disqualifies her from women’s events; unless she chemically or surgically alters herself. The danger for the IAAF here is that if they fail to prove their case, then the seemingly ridiculous battle of trying to prove a ‘woman is not a woman’ simply based on Testosterone levels is lost forever. “I know it’s around the corner,” Dutee says. “And I do get afraid but I have faith in my God and people are around me who have told me that this is wrong and that I have given hope to so many woman athletes that they are woman because they are woman and not because a certain chemical, less or more makes them women.”

Track fans would recall that Dutee had been called into Delhi in June 2014 for tests which she wasn’t told about. And then suddenly the Athletic Federation of India announced that they had reason to doubt Dutee’s gender. All this released to the media without verifying an inch of it. The media, probably knowing as much as Dutee did about what are gender tests and the entire controversy about it, waded into it and made it their headline. It was a kind of life imprisonment for Dutee. She hid not knowing what the hell was this all about. “It was something that one wouldn’t wish on one’s own enemy,” says Dutee. Ramesh was in Scotland, expecting Dutee to land up for the Commonwealth Games. Instead he got a call with a tearful Dutee at the other end of the phone. “I only told her to wait till we all understand what was going on,” says Ramesh. He understood the charges and knew they were wrong. It was time to go to battle.
Ruth Padawer wrote in The New York Times: “To evaluate the effects of high testosterone, the international athletic association’s protocol involves measuring and palpating the clitoris, vagina and labia, as well as evaluating breast size and pubic hair scored on an illustrated five-grade scale.”

For an athlete, dreaming of standing on the podium at the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games, her life had been stripped down. Instead of watching her sprint, India watched her being paraded in full public view. Tests showed that her ‘male’ hormone levels were high. But what they didn’t say or argue was that when a male hormone level in a male is way above normal, they are still MALE. And they still strut their stuff on the track.

Ramesh says he was worried that an athlete who was beginning to shine and emerge as one of the best in Asia would be lost. Most athletes are unable to bear the trauma. “Actually, nobody fought,” says Ramesh. “Some even committed suicide and some people withdrew. And when I spoke to her that this is what the situation is, she boldly said, ‘Sir, I am not at fault. Neither have I doped. It is God given and because of sports, I can’t change myself. When I am not at fault, why should I go away or withdraw. Let me fight back.’”

Ramesh also praises Payoshni Mitra, an Indian researcher with a doctorate in gender issues in sport who fought for Dutee and explained how the AFI and the IAAF were wrong. “Payoshni played a big role as I was also clueless. She said that the clause under which the ban was put was wrong. It said because of hyperandrogenism (higher testosterone), you get undue advantage, so, you are banned from participating in the women category. If you want to participate in the women’s category, then you should go for surgery or therapy. So, her argument is when you are saying ‘undue advantage’, there is a six foot girl against a four foot girl, so isn’t that an ‘undue advantage’. There are developed countries and right from the beginning they have every facility. There are girls, who are under-developed, and don’t have three-time food. Then is it not ‘undue advantage’? And she is born as a woman, and for the sake of sport, why should she change her gender. So, these were the strong points. So, she convinced SAI, Sports Ministry, and everybody came and stood by her.”

But cases cost money. And nobody from the ultra-rich Indian legal fraternity came forward. Maybe, Dutee Chand’s case didn’t pander to jingoism for them. Or they thought this won’t get them onto Prime Time TV.

N Ramesh, Dutee Chand's coach

N Ramesh, Dutee Chand's coach

Help came in the form of Bruce Kidd, principal of the University of Toronto, Scarborough, and a former track athlete who competed for Canada in the 1964 Olympics. Prof. Kidd spoke to the Indians in Glasgow asking them to the appeal the ruling against Ms. Chand to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Switzerland. Kidd brought in James Bunting, a prominent Toronto lawyer an expert in sport cases. He agreed to fight the case pro bono.

Bunting’s team argued that there is no medical evidence that higher levels of testosterone gives women athletes an advantage. In fact, the lawyers said other factors such as facilities, better infrastructure, diet, higher levels of coaching and biomechanical analysis are more crucial aspects to higher levels of athletic performance.

The court cleared Dutee Chand and gave the IAAF two years to come back with evidence. Meanwhile, Dutee felt hounded. She couldn’t stay in a SAI hostel as she was ‘looked down upon’. She needed to train and somehow qualify for the Rio Olympics. Ramesh asked his good friend Pullela Gopichand and explained the case to him. “If I keep writing to some organization or other authorities, by that time she would have disappeared,” says Ramesh. “So, I only had one option of asking Gopichand. He understood the pain of the player and readily accepted. So she was given the best stay, best food and everything fell in line.”

At the Gopichand Badminton Academy, Dutee is looked upon as a star and PV Sindhu is her best friend. “They thought I was a coach when I came to the academy,” says Dutee with a smile. “Sindhu met very ‘respectfully’ till I told her I am a sprinter and my name is Dutee Chand. Now she is a great friend and the academy supports me in everything.”

At the Federation Cup, Dutee keeps to herself. She finishes her event and goes back to her hotel where she prepares to qualify for the World Championship. “I want to be in London,” she says. “It’s been a tough fight. And it’s only because of Ramesh Sir; I am back on the track. But running against the best in the world at London will be good looking at the next four years.”

The coach believes she can win at the Commonwealth and the Asian Games. “Speed is her forte,” says Ramesh. “That’s why we also focus on the first 60 metres where she virtually crushes the opposition.” Dutee does believe she could have been better if she had an extra couple of inches. She is a delight when that smile runs up to the corners of her eyes as she says, “Then I could have dipped better at the finish line.” But she is focusing on her strength and endurance so that the last 40 metres when an athlete is fighting to keep the others away, she has the strength to go through. Ramesh is not too worried about the height factor. “After all, Shelly-Ann Fraser is only 5”. At the top, athletes don’t go with universal theories. There are disadvantages and advantages. It’s better to work on her strength and improve her frequency versus stride length.”

Dutee loves the 100 metres. She admits that Srabani Nanda runs the bend better than her. “I love the flat out sprint,” she says. What’s unsaid from her point of view is the immense confidence she has in herself. It’s the hunger that drives her to excel and create records that would remain there for a long time. Parminder Singh, a former 100 metre National Coach who helped Dutee be taken into the NIS, Patiala, says, “I could see she wanted success. She wanted to win and within three months she was the National Champion and then she won in Asia at the Youth Championships. If all goes well, expect her on the podium at the Asian Games.”

For 2017, Ramesh has set her short-term goals for being on the podium at the Asian Track and Field (July) and reaching the World Championships semi-finals (August) if she qualifies for London. “It’s difficult to motivate yourself unless you are winning,” says Ramesh. “And that’s why this hunger to win constantly.”

At the end of the day, it’s a sport. One can predict only so much. On the track, a pause at the start can cost a ‘milli-milli’ second and in the end a medal. Worse, four years of preparation would have been undone. From the fight at the court, scars do remain. Her aloofness points to the fact. It’s also a sign of courage, strength that you can throw anything at me but I will get up and be on track; ticking of those seconds. In the end she says, “I am happy a lot of nations supported me in my fight and I promise I won’t give up.” Dutee Chand is a woman who doesn’t intend giving up easily.

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Updated Date: Aug 27, 2018 11:53:50 IST