Dutee Chand, a sprinter from a poverty-ridden rural Indian family, won silver medals in the 100 meters and 200 meters events at the Asian Games in Jakarta and Palembang in August last year. It was a huge comeback moment for Dutee four years after she was diagnosed with ‘hyperandrogenism’ and banned from international sports events.
The ban marked a period of humiliation and struggle for the sports star. An anonymous complaint to the International Association of Athletics Federation led to a test that measured the levels of testosterone in Dutee’s blood. It revealed that her testosterone level exceeded the specified limit and led to her being banned from participating in the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games in 2014.
But on the afternoon of August 31, 2018, when Dutee Chand arrived back home in Bhubaneswar, capital of the eastern Indian state of Odisha, she was welcomed by a huge crowd at the airport. Many followed her to the secretariat where she was honored by the state’s chief minister for her achievements at the Jakarta Asian Games. She had given a ray of hope to Indian athletes coming from modest, rural backgrounds.
Now, while Dutee and her coach are focused on improving her sprinting times in upcoming international track and field events, Dutee has her eyes set on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
“My next target is always the next lined up games. But like every athlete out there representing the country, I too aspire to achieve triumph for the country at the Olympics,” says Dutee.
But the young sprinter’s road to success has been thorny, with a colossal disruption at the peak of her career.
Sprinter sisters of weaver parents
Dutee became the second-fastest woman in Asia and the fastest in the country by running 100 meters in 11.32 seconds and the 200 meters in 23.20 seconds last year. She also became one of the few Indian athletes to have won more than one medal at the Asian Games athletic events.
She was born in the weavers’ village of Chak Gopalpur in Jajpur district of Odisha in 1996. Her feat at the 18th Asian Games filled every villager with the same pride that Dutee’s parents Chakradhar Chand and Akhuji Chand and her six siblings felt.
Dutee’s elder sister Saraswati has also been a state-level athlete and was an early source of inspiration. Saraswati said that when Dutee clinched the silver in the 100 meters, it was a historic moment for their village. “My family had lit a lamp in prayer before the competition. Some villagers who have seen her struggles since she was a kid also prayed for her success. Most of them were just glued to the TV that day,” said Saraswati.
Living below the poverty line in India meant it was difficult to manage three meals a day for all nine family members, said Saraswati. “Before Dutee accomplished a few of her goals, my father had to think about breakfast and lunch for the next day while we were at dinner. Both my parents have been weaving to ensure that all the kids are taken care of,” she said.
Recalling her childhood, Dutee said it was predominantly marked by a lack of resources. “A decade ago, nine members of my family lived in a single room that was not even a concrete structure. (Overcrowding) and downpours from a temporary makeshift roof were regular problems. I can never forget the days of struggle wherever I go,” Dutee told Asia Times.
Success did not come easy for Dutee as she was initially not recognized by the concerned sports authorities. They did not give her access to adequate facilities to prepare herself, according to friends who have seen Dutee return to her village to work on her training.
“We knew she (Dutee) will do something extraordinary in life. She used to practice along the riverbank in the village and on (the) busy highway,” said Priyanka Swain, Dutee’s childhood friend from the village.
Her coach, Ramesh Nagapuri, said his main objective was to assist Dutee to get a job so that she could help her family financially. “She joined and stayed in the training camp at Patiala (in Punjab) for three months and broke the youth championship record within that time. Buoyed by her talent I picked her for the Indian camp,” he said.
By 2012, Dutee had established herself as a national champion by logging a record time of 11.8 seconds for the 100 meters. She also bagged a bronze medal at the 2013 Asian Athletics Championships, and financial support in the form of awards and sponsorships helped her family gain some stability. But soon after, in 2014, the hyperandrogenism controversy put a complete halt to her participation in athletic sevents.
Hyperandrogenism or androgen excess is a disorder characterized by excessive levels of androgens, which are male sex hormones such as testosterone, in the female body.
Sports medicine specialist Dr Sudeep Satpathy explains, “The International Athletic Federation has specified different limits for hyperandrogenism for male and female athletes. It was decided that those with more than specified levels would not be allowed to participate. Dutee challenged the decision in the Court of Arbitration of Sports (in Switzerland).”
Dr Satpathy said the court had sought responses from various sports associations over the hyperandrogenism regulation. The court later concluded that for shorter races like the 100 meters and 200 meters, such a condition did not have a direct impact, and so Dutee was allowed to carry on.
Pushing the legal battle was a hard choice, said Dutee. “I had two options – either to seek medical assistance or take the legal way which involved risks and the future was uncertain. If I was proved wrong, I could have lost my career and the ban would have continued. But I decided to challenge it and got some relief,” she says.
The ban had also taken away training assistance from the government. Dutee and her family have her coach Ramesh to thank for extending support during the hard times, as well as several other groups that work in the sphere of athletics and gender.
Ramesh said: “I had brought a girl from a rural area. And when she started to perform and look after her family through her income, she was humiliated (through) no fault of her (own). How could I leave her at that time? Can a parent leave their kid at such hard times?”
After spending years in poverty before becoming a celebrated athlete, the sprinter has now bought herself a luxury BMW car and is reconstructing the family home in their native village of Odisha.