Each time Dutee Chand would step onto the track to compete, a cloud of uncertainty would hang over her head. She knew the next race could be her last. After a tumultuous four-year period, where she took on the International Association of Athletics Federations, challenging their hyperandrogenism regulations, the Odisha sprinter has finally “won her battle”.
The latest tweak in the regulations released by the world body brings immense relief to the runner after the IAAF decided to leave out her events (100 and 200m) from the disciplines that came under new regulations. But there are still restrictions on the testosterone levels of female athletes taking part in middle distance (400m to 1 mile) events.
“These four years have been extremely tough for me. The negativity, fear of my career ending prematurely, insensitive comments about my body, I have faced them all. I am extremely relieved that I can run fearlessly again, knowing that now my battle exists only on the track and not off it,” Dutee told The Indian Express.
Although Dutee is free to run now, she is concerned about her fellow athletes, including star runner Caster Semenya, who will have to keep their testosterone levels in check using “hormonal contraceptives”.
In 2009 after winning the 800 metre gold at the World Championships, Semenya had to take testosterone suppressants before being given the green signal to compete again. Her continued domination in the 800 and 1,500 metres has made her controversial because of her large physique and deep voice.
Dutee, daughter of weaver parents in Chaka Gopalpur village in Odisha, feels it is unfair that restrictions remain in a few events. Dutee was so concerned about her “friend” Semenya that she wrote a mail to the multiple Olympic and World Championship winner, offering the South African to take legal help from her own team. “The first time I met Semenya, during the Rio Games, she made me feel like a close friend. She told me not worry about the case and focus on the sport. She gave me tips on handling the barbs thrown at me. I am glad that my battle is over but hers is not,” Dutee says.
Back in 2014, an 18-year-old Dutee was preparing for a very important athletics season, that included the Glasgow Commonwealth and Incheon Asian Games. But at the last moment, her name was axed from the CWG squad for “failing” a hyperandrogenism test.
Dutee had no idea that it was just the beginning of an ordeal that would force her to take on one of the world’s biggest sporting bodies, and finally, emerge victoriously. “The first year was the most difficult. I didn’t even know why I was left out. Even my closest friends stopped talking to me as their parents wouldn’t allow them to meet me. People would say to my face “ tu ladka hai aur ladki ke competition mein jaati hai”.
Just imagine how I would have felt. I did not know how to deal with such a situation, I just locked myself in a room and cried for days. The pain was crippling,” Dutee says in a strained voice.
It was during this dark period that Payoshni Mitra, a researcher and activist, approached the teenager to guide her legally. Initially reluctant, as she had “lost trust in everybody”, Dutee agreed to take Mitra’s help.The first battle was won when Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), Lausanne suspended IAAF’s regulations and gave Dutee a two-year reprieve that allowed her to compete provisionally.
“ The attitude of people around me had changed completely. I heard someone saying, ‘ye toh bas ek do chote mote event ke liye wapas aayi hai. Then she will vanish’,” says the 22-year-old.
But Dutee has a knack of proving doubters wrong. The next year, in 2016, she rewrote a 16-year-old record at the Federation Cup with an 11.33s run that was agonisingly close to the 11.32s Rio Olympics qualification mark.
But just over a month later she booked a historic 100m berth at the Games with a 11.30-second run in the heats at Kosanov memorial meet in Almaty. She capped off the event with a gold-winning run of 11.24s.
“This girl is extremely strong and resilient. I would lose my sleep over the case and I would see Dutee sitting in a corner playing video games. Then I realised that is how she coped with the stress. She always kept saying ‘ we have come this far, and the outcome will always be positive’ and that’s what has happened finally. She has won her battle,” Mitra says.
Dutee could not make the cut for the Commonwealth Games but with the Asian Games around the corner, she is looking forward to competing in Jakarta. “Now I will run, now I will run freely!”