She was dropped from the Indian squad on the eve of the 2014 Commonwealth Games after being told by doctors that test results indicated that she was “too manly to compete against women”. This in spite of being the toast of the nation after winning two Asian junior gold medals and becoming the first Indian woman to qualify for the final of the 100 metres at the world junior championships.
Dutee Chand was banned from competing in the women’s category and subjected to snide remarks from athletes and officials. She missed six months of training before a “provisional relief” allowed her to participate in only domestic meets till the final verdict on her plea challenging the ban was pronounced by the Court of Arbitration of Sport (CAS).
She sprinted fast enough to qualify for the National Games and reach the women’s 100 metres final. But she was nowhere near her best and had trained only intermittently since early July. She was up against an athlete who broke the meet record in the semifinals and a partisan crowd rooting for three strong finishers from the home state.
On Wednesday, when Dutee lined up in lane No. 4, wearing a pink jersey with the bib number 654, in what was her comeback to elite national-level athletics, there were enough factors in play for her to fail. But she decided to treat the 100 metres final as her last competitive race ever. From the time the starting gun went off, Dutee led from start to finish, crossing the finish line in 11.76 seconds to beat a highly competitive field of India’s best women sprinters.
After the first 30 metres, Dutee knew that could quell the threat from her competitors. Santhini V of Kerala took silver (11.84) while Reshmi Sheregar of Maharashtra came third (11.87).
When the race was replayed on the giant screen at the university stadium here, the Orissa athlete buried her face in her hands. And when she looked up again, she was beaming with joy. A few minutes later, she was able to talk about the relief the gold medal brought her.
“At this moment, knowing that I have won gold and I am still the fastest, I have forgotten everything that I faced — the sorrow and the hurt. My coach told me to treat this as my last race and run like there is no tomorrow. I did just that. It was a simple strategy but it made a lot of sense. After all, I am still not at my best, so there was no point trying to plan my race or worry about the other competitors’ strengths,” said Dutee.
Higher than permissible levels of testosterone — as per the international athletics federation guidelines — is what raised concerns over Dutee competing in the women’s category. Dutee, who is to travel to Lausanne for the CAS hearing, gave an uncomplicated take on why she should be eligible to run. “The elephant is stronger than the horse but can’t run as fast. This is because the horse is born to run. There are girls who are as strong as me but I am faster because I train harder and am born to run,” she said.
However, just four weeks ago, Dutee was not running fast enough. She had shifted base to Gachibowli in Hyderabad to train under her long-time coach N Ramesh. Dutee had just qualified for the National Games in both the 100 metres and 200 metres, but the 12.10 seconds and 25.6 seconds she clocked respectively were well below par.
Following the ban from competing as a woman because of hyper-androgenism, Dutee decided to take her mind off the controversy and hurt by training to qualify to become a ticket collector with the Central Railways. The sprinter trained only with the purpose of clinging to the sport she had been barred from rather than with the vigour of a champion athlete.
At the Gachibowli multi-purpose stadium, Dutee underwent her first training session under Ramesh in six months. The coach immediately knew there was a lot of work to be done if Dutee did not want to embarrass herself at the National Games. She was lacking in strength because she could not spend enough hours in the gym, and had lost speed. The coach and the ward trained twice a day, for up to five hours, in what was a race against time.
“Dutee would wonder if she would still be as fast as she was earlier. Today she proved that she is getting back to her best. Even now I would say she is just at about 90 per cent. And in the sprints, even if you are just a little short of being at your best, you can finish outside the top-three. But she could win today because she is mentally very strong. Even if you tell her that she has to run against the world champion today, she will remain unfazed,” Ramesh said.