MINUTES AFTER Dutee Chand became the first Indian sprinter to qualify for the Olympics by setting a national record in the 100 metres at Almaty with a timing of 11.30 seconds in the heats on Saturday, thousands of miles away in Bhubaneswar, Saraswati Chand, the athlete’s older sister, got a WhatsApp message.
“Olympic ke liye qualify hua,” read the message from Dutee.
Saraswati, a former athlete, had to pinch herself to make sure that she was not dreaming. As a young girl, Dutee would often race with Saraswati on the banks of the Brahmani river in Odisha.
Later in the day, competing in the final of the XXVI International Meeting G Kosanov Memorial in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Dutee broke the national record for the second time in a few hours, winning the silver with a timing of 11.24 seconds.
Saraswati was overjoyed and immediately called up a relative in her village of Chaka Gopalpur, a two-hour drive from Bhubaneswar. She told the relative to inform her parents, Chakradar and Akkaji, both weavers, that Dutee had created history on the track. A little later, riding a scooter, she left for her village to join the celebrations.
For the last two months, the family has been praying each time Dutee steps on the tracks. She came agonisingly close to meeting the Olympics qualifying mark of 11.32 seconds when she missed out by one-hundredth of a second at the Federation Cup in New Delhi in April. Since then, she has been within touching distance of making the cut.
“My parents, coach N Ramesh and my sister Saraswati were praying for me. Before I left for the competitions in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, a puja was performed in the village and a feast was organised. I am delighted that I have been able to repose the faith people have in me,” said Dutee from Almaty.
“My parents have been performing a puja at the village temple every time Dutee participates in an event. Even on Friday and Saturday, they went to the temple. My mother has been fasting ahead of the competition in Kazakhstan,” said Saraswati from Chaka Gopalpur.
By noon, when news reached the village that Dutee had qualified for the Rio Olympics, Akkaji broke her fast. “Our neighbours brought us sweets and my mother was overjoyed. Everyone in the village is happy. Those who have been following Dutee’s career know how big her achievement is, while some others who are illiterate are just happy that a girl from the village is going to run in front of the whole world,” said Saraswati.
What has been heartening for Akkaji is the change in attitude towards Dutee. “When she was first banned, people used to ask our family why she was banned. We did not understand why our daughter was not being allowed to run with other women and could not explain it to those who raised questions. It was heartbreaking for us. But now, to see people celebrate Dutee’s achievement as if she is their daughter, brings tears to my eyes,” said Akkaji.
Just two years ago, it seemed like Dutee’s career was all but over. She was banned from competing in the women’s category under the international athletics federation’s hyperandrogenism guidelines. But she didn’t give up, taking her case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which, in July last year, declared void the guidelines that debar athletes with hyperandrogenism deemed excessive but naturally occurring testosterone from competing in the women’s category.
Back in Chaka Gopalpur, the villagers saw Dutee change from a carefree girl to one who came back to take refuge when she was banned for nearly a year, and then her transformation to a champion athlete who broke the national record thrice in less than two months, booking her place at the Rio Olympics.
“Once Dutee’s ban was lifted last year, the whole village was proud that she had won the right to run again. Now, everyone is hoping that she will have time to come to the village for a day at least so her achievement can be celebrated,” said Saraswati.
The sprinter, who is one of seven children, is also thinking of making a brief visit home on her return from Almaty. “I will go home for a day or two because I want to meet my parents and siblings before I go to Rio. I also want to go and pray at the Lord Jagannath temple. The good wishes of everyone in my village and the blessings of Lord Jagannath helped me qualify for the Olympics,” she said.