Standing next to each other at one end of the Indira Gandhi Athletics Stadium in Sarusajai were two cotton weavers, a mother and a father, modestly dressed, wearing chappals and looking lost. They had travelled all the way to the outskirts of Guwahati from Chaka Gopalpur, a village in Odisha’s Jajpur, to witness — for the first time — what their daughter Dutee Chand did for a living.
The train journey from Bhubaneswar to Kolkata and onward to Guwahati marked the first time Chakradar and Akkaji, who earn less than Rs 500 a week, had travelled beyond the state capital. They carried with them, in a “jhola”, home-made rice cakes, Dutee’s favourite food, and prasad from a temple in their village.
The stadium with floodlights, the announcer’s booming voice blaring through the speakers, stands teeming with spectators and a large number of security personnel made them uneasy until they saw in the distance the familiar figure of Dutee, at the starting blocks for the 200 metres final.
Dutee would have been tense, too. The presence of her parents at the venue must have been reassuring. The ongoing South Asian Games was her first international event after the ban that kept her away from track for close to a year.
It was a traumatic period for the confused sprinter. More so, because the athletics world, committed to providing a level-playing field, wasn’t sensitive to such cases. But Dutee didn’t give up until the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) declared void the International Association of Athletics Federation’s (IAAF) guidelines that debar athletes with hyperandrogenism — deemed excessive but naturally occurring testosterone — from competing in the female category. For the weaver couple from Jajpur, the issue was too complex to understand. Now, watching their daughter on the starting block, they knew the nightmare was over.
When the fans cheered as Dutee and her statemate Srabani Nanda, the winner of the race, crossed the finish line ahead of Sri Lanka’s Rumeshika Ratnayake, Akkaji held her husband’s hand as tears of joy rolled down her face.
Saraswati Chand, Dutee’s older sister who accompanied her old parents to Guwahati, says she had to hold back her tears as the family embraced Dutee after the race.
Dutee experienced similar emotions. “It was a heart-warming moment for the family. My parents had never seen me participate in a competition, even at the state level. I won a silver and bronze (100 metres) but knowing that they were at the stadium makes me feel like I won gold,” said Dutee.
Saraswati, a former athlete, took the decision to bring her parents to Guwahati. “After Dutee made a comeback after her ban was overturned, my parents wanted to watch her in at least one race. I decided to bring them for the South Asian Games because it is a rare opportunity for them to see Dutee run against international athletes,” she said.
Akkaji and Chakradar had seen pictures in newspapers of Dutee with medals hanging around her neck and had been invited to felicitation functions in Bhubaneswar. The closest they got to seeing their daughter run was when she would dart across the banks for the Brahmani river as a young girl.
A day after watching Dutee ‘live’, Akkaji recalls the hurtful questions the family had to face. “I could not understand why Dutee was disallowed from running with other females. It was a huge relief when she was allowed to run again. For the first time during this visit to Guwahati, I saw why running makes my daughter so happy,” said Akkaji.
Before heading to the stadium, the family which stayed at a city hotel, went to the Kamakhya Temple in Guwahati and prayed for Dutee to win a medal.
“Now, I can tell everyone in our village that I have seen Dutee run. The whole world was talking about Dutee and as her parents it was our dream to watch her run. I never imagined she could run so fast,” said Akkaji.
On Friday morning, Dutee’s parents and sister took a train back to Kolkata from where they will board another one to Bhubaneswar. Dutee was on a plane to New Delhi with the Indian athletics contingent. As the family headed in different directions from the South Asian Games, they knew they would never forget the floodlit evening in Guwahati.