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They didn't want to share a room with me, now the same people love me for Rio: Dutee Chand

Kicked out of the 2014 national camp for not being "female enough," the sprinter from Odisha has scripted an unlikely Rio Olympic comeback.

Dutee Chand qualified for Rio after successfully breaching the qualification mark in Kazakhstan

The Bosman Ruling in football is considered a landmark case for liberating the careers of professional players, as it allowed them seamless movement across different clubs. This judgment helped increase the sport’s commercial value, with higher amount of money being invested in the acquisition of players. The fight of a relatively unknown Belgian footballer, Jean Marc-Bosman, created a sustainable financial ecosystem for equality to thrive.

Not many know that the athletics world has been witness to a phenomenon similar to the Bosman Ruling. Dutee Chand, India’s first 100m qualifier since P T Usha, has fought several gender barriers to script an unlikely Rio Olympic qualification. In the process, the daughter of a weaver from Chaka Gopalpur in Odisha brought down a global rule which was the backbone of gender testing in sports.

A silver medal run at the recently concluded Kosonov Athletics Meet in Kazakhstan saw Dutee clock 11.24 seconds, far ahead of the Olympic qualification mark of 11.32 seconds. The first Indian woman to qualify for 100m in this century, Dutee and her fight have liberated the pro-athletics circuit of the gender test, which had destroyed several careers over two decades.   

Speaking to Sportskeeda after her qualification, Dutee said, “Ever since I got banned, I’ve been dreaming of Rio qualification. The same people who didn’t want to share a hostel room with me because of my ‘actual’ gender are congratulating me about Rio. My target is to win gold at the Olympics one day, so I didn’t pay much attention to what was going on. I just wanted to run again.”

From being kicked out of national camp to booking a Rio 2016 berth

At just 18 years of age, Dutee was forced to fight an entire system which looked at gender in a black or white manner. Her condition, hyperandrogenism, causes the female body to store higher amount of testosterone than the norm.

Dutee was a consistent performer in the junior circuit prior to the ban

The system earlier dictated that only women with a certain amount of testosterone could compete. Most athletes who had slightly higher testosterone levels either quit the sport or went through a five-year long process to reduce their hormonal levels, and they eventually faded out due to the operational side-effects.

However, Dutee refused to take either of those routes, always stating that her body was as ‘female’ as the others. She was even thrown out of her national camp in 2014 by the governing authorities for not meeting gender standards.  The 'testing' of her gender in the first place was done due to an anonymous complaint during the Junior Asian Athletics Championship.

Dutee wasn’t even aware why tests were being conducted by the Athletics Federation of India (AFI). After the tests, without being given a logical explanation, the Odisha sprinter was kicked out of the national camp. Only a week later did she learn that a failed gender test was the reason of her ouster; she found that out while watching the news on TV.

She says, “I have now stopped thinking about those moments. Actually the only time I remember them is when I feel a bit de-motivated. Yes, most people lost faith in my case, but there were people who helped me as well. I knew I was a natural female and those people did too; because of them I am at the Olympics now. It’s been a long journey so far, but I’m just 21, I cannot be like 'I’ve fought so much and made it to the Olympics'. These are my formative years, and if I want to be the best, which I do, a lot of more sacrifices will be made. But I will get there.”

This is probably the first time multiple Indian sporting bodies, both government and non-government ones, have come together to support a cause. Dutee’s fight for gender equality in athletics united the Sports Authority of India (SAI), the Athletics Federation of India, the Sports Ministry and other private companies, and they all decided to fighting for the same cause against the IAAF. It was a situation completely unheard of in the country’s sporting landscape.

Apart from Indian organisations, foreign women’s activists and Canadian law firm Davies Ward Philipps and Vineberg LLP also fought her case. The combined efforts eventually bore fruit, and Dutee's ostracism from the sport was put aside.

Challenging the IAAF's ban at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), Dutee affirmed that there was nothing wrong with producing a higher amount of testesteorone. Injection of artificial testestorone has been known to boost muscle growth, but natural ones have no proven added affect in an athlete’s performance. Dutee’s basic question was, “Why should girls be tested to be girls in the first place?”

Around 25% of elite gender-tested male athletes had lesser testestorone than the accepted ‘male’ range. However, they were never stopped from competing for not being ‘men’. On July 25, 2015, CAS found valid logic in the argument, and suspended the rule for two years, asking the IAAF to dig up more evidence to change the sentence.

An entire country’s sporting ecosystem had successfully supported Dutee in reinstating her right to run.

How Dutee trained during the one-year ban

Lifting the ban was an international milestone for not just the sport, but for humanity as a whole. However, Dutee’s toughest test was to keep competing during her days away from competitive sprinting. 

Her coach Nagapuri Ramesh trained her during the suspension phase. He said, “Even then she was the fastest woman on track in India, so that didn’t change. But if you’re the fastest at 18, you can imagine the growth you can have in the next two years. That completely stopped. When she got banned she was targeting gold at the 2014 Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games. So she missed out on pivotal tournaments, which were essential for her exposure. She almost went from Glasgow to her village in Odisha, where the training facilities were not as good. However, I always knew Dutee would never give up, hence we never stopped training.”

Dutee adds, “It was the most difficult phase of my life, not at any moment did I think I would be able to come back. But I knew I was right in doing what I was doing. I trained four times every day, I didn’t want to lose the speed that I had before. Each of my workouts had 300-400 repetitions, instead of 50 or 100. Because I knew when I came back, it was Rio or nothing.”

And boy did she come back! Running at the Senior Open Athletics Meet in Kolkata, she won gold medals in all of her three events. But even though it was a remarkable comeback for the short-distance runner, the fact remained that Dutee was still 0.50 seconds behind Olympic qualification.

Competing in India wasn’t helping her as she was easily the fastest girl on the track. To that end, both Ramesh and Dutee decided that she would train with the men’s sprinting squad. Dutee says, “I hardly had any competitions in India which were competitive. I was going abroad for tournaments, and I’m grateful that the AFI was sending me, but those tournaments were tier 2 in nature. Like in Taiwan where I narrowly missed out on Olympic qualification, I won gold with that, so those weren’t really helping my cause. Hence I decided, If I need to increase my pace beyond qualification, I had to start training with India’s men’s team.”

Dutee broke two national records at the Senior Federation Cup

This decision led to a massive jump in her timings. Dutee started regularly clocking 11.4, which was far ahead of the time she recorded in Kolkata. By the beginning of 2016, she was knocking on the Olympic qualification door. Narrowly missing out on Rio by 0.01 seconds, she broke two national records at the 2016 Senior Federation Cup, including the 100m, by clocking 11.33 seconds. Rachita Mistry’s long standing 16-year record of 11.38 seconds was also toppled in the process.

Having qualified for Rio, Dutee is now finally eligible for Target Olympic Plan Scheme (TOPS) funding. However, a measly amount of Rs 30 lakh doesn’t respect the potential shown by her so far. She adds, “I was invited by the Coach to the Chula Vista Academy, the premier Athletics training programme. However, I wasn’t able to garner funds and the amount I’m getting won’t be adequate. But the people I would be running with there, would significantly increase my time as I have never experienced it here. It’s now up to SAI on where they want to decide to send me. I will focus on getting my time better at any cost.”

Power cuts an embarrassment for Indian athletics: Dutee

A recent power outage at the Nehru stadium, during the Indian Grand Prix, saw Odisha’s Amiya Kumar Mullick lose a potential Olympic slot. Dutee says, “If an association is organising a tournament, they should see whether there is electricity at the venue. Athletes are suffering majorly, because of these decisions. No athletics body will take hand stopwatch timings.”

With 37 days to go, the target still remains training in Rio in early July. She adds, “I just want to keep training; I’m just 20 now, and I know I’m destined for an Olympic medal. Right now I’m targeting a final finish. If I have to do that then I must clock 11.1, which is quite far away, but I’m confident that I will be peaking very soon.”

With her never-say-die attitude and strength in the face of adversity, Dutee Chand isn't just setting an example for unfairly discriminated athletes across the world. She is also giving Indian athletics the hope that a return of the PT Usha days are not too far away. 

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