Image: Akhil Ranjan
In 2018, Dutee Chand and her coach N Ramesh were scheduled to travel from Hyderabad to Bhubaneswar to attend a felicitation ceremony for the sprinter, a double silver-medallist at the Asian Games and India’s national record-holder in 100 m. While thrashing out travel plans, Chand requested Ramesh to proceed on a flight, while she would follow separately.
Upon landing in Bhubaneswar, Ramesh met Chand, but what caught his eye was not his ward but a spanking, new BMW that she had come driving in. “She told me she had gone to a showroom in Hyderabad, bought a BMW and driven straight to Bhubaneswar in it,” says Ramesh, a Dronacharya awardee. “A lot of coaches would advise caution against such on-the-spur decisions, but I didn’t. I want to preserve this boldness in her. Most 100 m races have one starting opportunity. Only when you are unafraid at the start, do you get it right,” he adds of his protege whose silver medals in the 100 m and 200 m events of the 2018 Asiad were the first by an Indian since PT Usha and Saraswati Saha in 1986 and 1998, respectively.
But what elevates her achievement from being a mere athletic feat is that, in 2014, Chand was banned from competition on grounds of hyperandrogenism—a condition in which her body produces testosterone at the level of men. Chand, then 19 and a resident of Jajpur district of Odisha, fought back and got the IAAF (now World Athletics), the global body for athletes, to overturn her ban. Last year, she made headlines by not just being the first Indian athlete to win a 100 m gold at the World University Games, but also the first to come out as gay, weathering backlash from her family and transcending her humble socioeconomic milieu.
“The confidence to take on bigger powers comes from the fact that I don’t fight just like that. I fight for a cause. In 2014, I was being punished for no fault of mine and later I was pulled up for matters that were personal and no one else’s business. I had to speak up,” she says.
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That Chand had sass and pluck in abundance was evident since her childhood as she fought off derision since the tender age of six. Back in the day, goaded by her sister Saraswati, almost a decade older than her, Chand took to sprinting. While Saraswati, a national-level athlete who landed a job in the police department through the sports quota, taught her the basics, she went about running bare feet on the banks of the river and around her village, Chaka Gopalpur, turning a deaf ear to snide remarks from locals on what a young girl ought to do. “Despite them, I would win the races in school every year,” says Chand.
“The confidence to take on bigger powers comes from the fact that I don’t fight just like that. I fight for a cause.”
In 2006, when Chand was 12, she was selected for an Odisha government programme that secured her admission in a sports hostel in Bhubaneswar. That ended her physical travails—of the acute knee pain she developed after running on cold sand in her village during winter, or a sparse diet of pakhala bhata and aloo sabzi that her weaver parents could rustle up for their family of nine. In Bhubaneswar, with only running to focus on, Chand became India’s 100 m champion in the under-18 category.
But bigger battles, not limited to the running track, awaited her. In 2014, a year after she became the first Indian to reach the 100 m finals at the IAAF World Youth Championships, the first Indian athlete to do so at an international event, Chand was dropped from India’s Commonwealth and Asian Games teams for hyperandrogenism and banned till she took corrective measures. “Back then, I hadn’t even heard of those tests. All I knew were dope tests and I had come clean in those. I spent the first night trying to figure it out in my head. Next morning, the media splashed the news all over and people started taunting me, saying I was actually a boy and not a girl. I spent days crying,” says Chand.
As all financial and emotional support slipped away, Chand, then 19, dipped into the reserves of her own firepower and, with the help of a group of athletes’ rights activist and lawyers, took on the IAAF, appealing against its decision at the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS) in Switzerland. During this period, she also shifted to Hyderabad, where coach Ramesh, among a handful that she had in her corner, was based. In Hyderabad, she put up at a facility offered for free by badminton coach Pullela Gopichand, and Chand and Ramesh immersed themselves in training despite an uncertain future. In 2015, the CAS overturned the IAAF policy and allowed Chand to compete. Within a year, Chand qualified for 100 m in the Rio Olympics in 2016.
While Chand had a poor run at Rio, being knocked out in the first round, she continued to train full steam on her return. And she hasn’t looked back since. 2018 was a stupendous year as she became a double silver medallist at the Asiad. In 2019, she followed up her gold at the university games with a new 100 m national record that, at 11.22 seconds, shaved off .04 seconds of her own previous record and brought her within touching distance of the 11.15-second Olympic qualification mark.
“Chand’s a fighter. She never gives up. What makes her such a good runner is her frequency, measured by the number of strides she takes per second, and her excellent reaction to the starting gun,” says Ramesh. “In India, the emphasis earlier would be on the 200 m and the 400 m. In fact, I also asked Chand to focus on those disciplines. She replied, ‘Sir main 100 m itna achha se daurungi ki woh dekh ke dusre log bhi 100 m mein aayenge [I’ll run 100 m as well as I can and that’ll attract others to it]’.”
Now that the cycle has turned and the distractions have been fought off, Chand has narrowed her focus on the Olympics, barring the occasional Sunday indulgence of sleeping till late and cooking her favourite fish and mutton dishes. Since 2012, she has been approached for biographies and biopics, “but all that’s for after the Olympics”. She’s not a big fan of Bollywood movies, so she can’t pick an actor who she would like to play her. “Whoever it is has to work very hard to shadow me and emulate my practice and running schedules,” she says.
For Chand, both on the track and off it, there are no shortcuts to success.
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(This story appears in the 13 March, 2020 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)