When eight women lined up for the 100 metres final at the 20th Federation Cup National Senior Athletics Championships in Delhi on April 28—the first event of the season for Indian athletes to qualify for the Rio Olympics–only one number was on their minds: 11.32 seconds, the qualification time.
No Indian woman had done that before. The national record was 11.38 seconds, set by Maharashtra sprinter Rachita Mistry in 2000. It improved on P. T. Usha’s 1985 time by 0.01 seconds.
The conditions did not favour a new record at the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium. It was a cloudless afternoon, around 42 degrees. Several athletes were taken to hospital due to the heat and pollution. The track was worn, pitted with craters. When the women ran the heats early in the morning, Dutee Chand, the 20-year-old from Odisha was the fastest at 11.48 seconds closely followed by H. M. Jyothi from Karnataka, and Srabani Nanda, another Odisha sprinter.
In trademark style, Chand folded her hands in namaste to the crowd as her name was announced before the final around 5 p.m. She exploded out of the blocks at the starting gun. Nanda, Chand’s statemate, tried to catch her. She didn’t even come close.
As she touched the finish line, Chand turned to her overjoyed coach Nagapuri Ramesh. Her time was 11.33 seconds, improving her personal best by 0.30 seconds and smashing Rachita Mistry’s 16-year-old national record. Still, she had missed Rio qualification by one-hundredth of a second, which is many times faster than the blink of an eye.
“It is all right,” Ramesh told Chand. “We have two more months. We will train harder.”
This was a comeback for the pint-sized sprinter, who had spent a year and a half in the wilderness.
Chand, for now, was India’s fastest woman.
She had sweated day and night to be the fastest, and fought harder still to compete as a woman.
In 2014, her career was blossoming under Ramesh. The national champion in the 100m and 200m, she won bronze at the 2013 Asian Athletics Championships in Pune and became the first Indian woman to reach a sprint final at the World Youth Championships the same year. She was just 18, India’s best bet for an Olympic medal in the 100m, a feat no Indian has achieved. Age was on her side. The world was her oyster.
In July 2014, Chand was at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) training camp in Bengaluru, preparing for the IAAF World Junior Championship at Eugene, USA. She was focused on improving her timing and, in particular, on maintaining proper running form. She had been told of her selection for the Commonwealth Games (CWG) in Glasgow and wondered what Scotland would be like. Would her timing be enough for a medal?
One day she was called for a medical examination by the SAI. This was an unusual and extensive test, unlike the routine dope tests. In her testimony to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) later she described it as a “humiliating examination by a male doctor, who asked intrusive questions about body hair, menstrual cycle, surgical history and hobbies”.
A team of doctors conducted physical examinations, including in the genital area. Dutee testified that she felt vulnerable, but had no choice.
On July 13, Dr S. R. Sarala, SAI’s scientific officer of sports medicine, said she would no longer be able to compete because her “male hormones” were too high. This was nine days before the US event and 10 days before the CWG.
“Male hormones? Was I tested for male hormones? And why?” Chand recalls asking herself.
The examination was carried out without her written consent or even basic information about the tests even though the rules require that athletes be informed about the nature of medical tests as well as the reason for them.
These were not the only tests done surreptitiously. On June 26 while in Delhi she was asked to take some tests by the Athletics Federation of India (AFI), the apex body. The next day Dutee met Dr. Arun Kumar Mendiratta, chairperson of AFI’s Medical Commission. He took her to a private clinic.
The tests were not routine. They included an ultrasound. In her testimony, Chand said when she questioned Mendiratta about the tests he told her AFI was creating a “high performance profile” for her and this examination was required to check for disease. The ultrasound was done because there was no nurse to draw blood for a test, according to her testimony.
In his statement to CAS, Mendiratta said several athletes had expressed concern to the AFI about Chand’s appearance and questioned her eligibility for the female category during a championship in Taipei. He denied that the Delhi tests had anything to do with gender verification or hyperandrogenism.
But AFI actions in the aftermath of these tests indicate otherwise. Its secretary, C. K. Valson, wrote to SAI within three days of the tests with an unambiguous subject line: “Gender verification issue”.
The letter said “cases of female hyperandrogenism have earlier brought embarrassment to the fair name of sports in India” and mentions the doubts raised at Taipei. Valson asked SAI to perform a “gender verification test” on Chand to avoid “any embarrassment to India in the international arena at a later stage”. These were the instructions that led to the test in Bengaluru.
On July 15, two days after Dr. Sarala informed Dutee about her disqualification, SAI director-general Jiji Thomson issued a statement saying a gender test was conducted on a woman athlete in Bengaluru, and her name would be deleted from the Commonwealth team.
The tests showed that Dutee’s natural testosterone level was higher than the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) threshold of 10nmol/L (nanomoles per litre) set for women in April 2011. The exact number was not revealed, following IAAF rules for confidentiality. A higher level of androgens—mostly testosterone—is described as hyperandrogenism (HA).
Thomson and SAI soon realised they had committed a blunder in calling the medical exam a “gender test”. Over the next two days, SAI issued two press releases, clarifying that “the test does not determine the athlete’s gender”, and they were conducted to “find out if the athlete has excess androgen in her body”.
It was too late. By then, it was all over the media that Dutee Chand had failed a gender test. Her identity was leaked and her privacy compromised.
The SAI statement also said she would be eligible to compete in the female category “if she takes proper medical help and lowers her androgen level to the specified range”.
“Proper medical help” implies measures to bring down natural testosterone levels by hormone suppression therapies or genital surgery.
“At the time, none of this made sense. I was wondering when and why a gender test was done and how I could fail it,” Chand said when I met her in Hyderabad last December. Initially, she thought she had been wrongly implicated in a doping case. She blamed herself, thinking her food supplement was the reason for failing a doping test. But now they were talking about gender, not doping.
“I heard people say I was a boy, and not a girl. And that I could not compete any more. The only two things I identified with—being a girl and being an international athlete—were being questioned,” she said.
Dutee was a victim of gender scrutiny that has destroyed the careers of many athletes. But unlike other athletes who agreed to hormonal treatment or invasive surgery, Dutee took on the IAAF. She took her case to the CAS, often referred to as sport’s Supreme Court, challenging regulations that bar some women from competing because of their hormone levels.
The CAS agreed with Chand. She won the case. For the first time in decades, women would not be subjected to gender tests that were not just scientifically unsound, but also humiliating.
In July, Chand was in Bengaluru, preparing for a 4 x 100 metres relay. On race day morning, I’m chatting with her in her hotel room adjacent to Kanteerava stadium. Her roommate is flipping channels on the TV, and a scene with girls running in a competition catches Dutee’s attention. It’s a Tamil movie. It shows the protagonist, a village girl, running in a village competition.
“Who runs in a salwar?” she wonders. “For many years, I ran wearing a frock. Who had money for track suits?”
She talks about her family in Chakagopalpur, a village 85 kilometres north of Bhubaneswar. Dutee Chand was born to Chakradhar and Akhuji, a weaver couple who could barely sustain their family of six daughters and a son on a daily income of Rs 100. Since the work was physically demanding even this was not assured.
Each day started with worries over rice for the next meal. For the children, staying up late and waiting for dinner was common. The local grocer entertained Dutee’s father only after finishing with paying customers.
This involved waiting at the shop between 7 p.m. and 11 p.m., before he got supplies on credit. The children waited in the light of the dim bulb, the only thing electrical in the house, as Akhuji prepared the meal. It was often midnight by the time they sat down for dinner.
The Chands were not invited to weddings or birthdays, but neighbours sent leftovers the next morning. This was humiliating and Saraswati, the oldest, felt angry. But the family ate it.
It was Saraswati who influenced Dutee to take up running. She was a kabaddi player, but switched to running because the state police had distance running competitions as qualifying events. There was the promise of a job. Dutee often accompanied her to practice sessions.
One day, when she was three, Dutee got bored sitting by the Brahmani river in their village, while her sister practised. “I started running too. I loved it and started doing this every day,” she says.
The reaction in the village was one of disapproval. Why were the girls running along the river wearing tiny shorts and vests, her parents were asked.
Chand’s attention wanders back to the Tamil movie. She grins as the protagonist chucks her shoes in the middle of the run and wins the race barefoot. She too had done this in her early days.
By 2004, Saraswati was a police constable and encouraged her sister to run as she was a natural. Saraswati was also aware the family urgently needed an additional earner. “While Didi (Saraswati) took care of some of the expenses, we were still struggling,” Dutee says.
When she was around eight, she decided to go see her sister in Cuttack, 60 km from the village, all by herself. This was her first trip outside the village. The driver refused to let her board and asked if she was running from home. Somebody from her village, who knew her, convinced the driver. Since then, she has always travelled unaccompanied.
On screen, the protagonist’s father gets her dry fruits and cans of energy drink. “This didn’t happen with me,” Chand laughs.
In July 2006, she was selected for a state sports programme with free board, school and sports training, in Bhubaneswar. Initially, she hated the hostel, away from her family. But she was getting to run, that too in shoes. She had a coach. She also got eggs, chicken, and milk—delicacies rare at home. Sport also offered opportunities for foreign travel. But the 10-year-old found her biggest “laalach” in the idea that doing well in sport could get her a job like her sister’s. She decided to stay back.
Gayatree Dash was Chand’s junior in the sports programme. They went to the same school, stayed in the same hostel, and competed in the same events—100 and 200 metres. “Dutee was extremely focused on running. She loved the hectic training schedule before and after school that I found extremely tiresome. She practised and did not join the other girls and me in our antics. She kept to herself but was eager to help even the ones who were not nice to her,” Dash tells me. “Now that she is making money, she has gifted me dresses, a mobile phone, and helped with money when I have needed it urgently.”
Unlike Dutee, Dash quit sport to focus on her studies after her Class 10 exams. “I made a good decision by quitting sport early. At school, Dutee and I were in the same group and I was lagging behind her. She was the one who got all the chances of representing the school and district and later the state in our group. With her as my rival, I couldn’t have made it big in sport. What is the point in continuing without winning medals?” Dash laughs.
Dash stood by her after she was barred from competing, and she is the only one Dutee calls a close friend.
By 2007, 11-year-old Chand was participating in the 400m and 800m at the junior level, winning medals and setting national records. In 2009, a new sprint coach noticed that she lacked endurance but had tremendous speed. He convinced her that her style and speed were ideal for the sprint, so she decided to focus on the 100m and 200m.
Prizes started pouring in: The tea set the family serves the guests in and packs carefully after they have left, the LCD TV in her bedroom; a 25 gram gold chain; the first pressure cooker used by her mother, and the hot case she still refuses to use.
Her coach Nagapuri Ramesh, working with SAI, spotted the young Dutee Chand in Kochi in 2008. In 2011, at a national camp in Patiala, he ran into Saraswati and enquired about Dutee. Saraswati said she had come back from the hostel after matriculation and was training by herself in the village. He asked Saraswati if Dutee could come to Patiala.
She was worried about costs but Ramesh offered to pay. Chand arrived in Patiala on the next train. Arrangements were made for her stay a little away from the city. It cost Ramesh Rs 3,000 a month, an investment that was worth it, he says.
In March 2012, she became a resident athlete at the Netaji Subhas National Institute of Sports, Patiala.
“I thought she could do well enough to get a job under sports quota and help her family. It’s only when I started coaching her that I realised her immense talent. She was born to achieve greater things,” says Ramesh who took SAI’s one-year Diploma in Sports Coaching at its Bangalore centre in 1992. He topped his class and was offered a job as a coach. In his 24-year career, his trainees have won over 100 medals in senior and junior national athletics events.
Dutee is his prize pupil. He calls her his best and most hard working student.
She has a junior ticket collector’s job in the Railways. Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has also offered her an assistant manager’s position in the Odisha Mining Corporation.
She laughs that greed made her stick to running. “Initially, I ran with all my heart to get the books they gave as prize at events in the Odiya medium school in my village. I wasn’t much of a student so I continued running to get a job under sports quota. When I got a job in the Railways, I continued with athletics to avoid being posted. My boss said I would be promoted if I got medals. And soon I was bringing many medals. So it has been greed all along.” Speaking in Hindi, she uses the word “laalach” more in the sense of motivation than greed.
“I only know to run. I don’t know what I would have become if not a sportswoman. I was introduced to running very young and never got a chance to think of any other option.”
Chand has built a pucca house with three rooms and a toilet. Spending on a toilet was seen as a luxury in a village where people squat by the riverbank. Even the new house is not big enough for the family.
More rooms need to be added and she needs to make Rs 10 lakh for that. She has also bought a car because travelling 85 km to Bhubaneswar takes a lot of time. She wants to buy a Mahindra XUV but does not have the money. She also has to educate her three younger sisters.
Most of her Railways salary and money from the prizes goes into supporting her family or to pay the EMI on her “wife”—what Dutee jokingly calls her Chevrolet Beat.
She starts getting ready for a felicitation at the office of Sushant Mahapatra, DGP, Police Housing Corporation, Karnataka, who is from Odisha.
There is still time, the DGP’s car hasn’t arrived yet. She neatly folds her clothes and organises them in three separate sections in her suitcase for a flight later. She is sad that she cannot carry the red gerbera (daisy) bouquets, three of which she received that day.
She’s telling me stories about meeting big shots, her travels, and her struggle with English. “I’m still struggling. I don’t understand things a lot of times like I could not understand what they meant when they asked if I was veg or non-veg.”
That must have been tricky for the meat lover. When I had asked her if she ate meat, she said “All of it” in English. “I eat anything that human beings can.” She was particularly excited about having eaten octopus.
During lunch, she curled her index finger and asked for the name of the fish that resembled the shape of her finger. She loves prawns and wanted to make sure she could order them at a restaurant next time.
The difference between “no and know” was even trickier.
She could not understand why people spoke to her in English even after she told them, “I no English. No matlab nahi (No means no). I told them I could not speak English. But they still asked questions in English. I couldn’t understand why till I finally discovered the word ‘know’.”
She picks up her smartphone (a Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge) that she refers to as her second wife. She Googles her name and asks me to translate some of the news articles that turn up.
There comes a twist in the film playing in the background. The protagonist’s run of victories is interrupted when she is implicated in a controversy after some lab tests. Dutee is hugely interested in finding out which sports authorities help her and which desert her.
But it’s time to leave. She checks the title, repeats “Ethir Neechal ”, making a mental note so that she can get a DVD later. I find out later that this story is based on Tamil Nadu’s Santhi Soundarajan, another athlete banned after failing a gender test. They were the criterion till hyperandrogenism regulations came into effect in 2011.
As she steps on the track at Kanteerava to warm up, Chand has her game face on. The banter and jokes give way to a terse discussion with teammates. She is focused, almost to the point of looking angry. She is anchoring the relay, running the final 100 metres.
She stands barely five foot tall. Her dusky skin has tanned after a busy and harsh summer training. She has tied her shoulder-length hair in a tight ponytail. The gold chain shimmers in the afternoon sun and she has an off-white thread tied around her left leg. Dutee scratches her forehead with the long fingernails of her left hand.
She does a couple of high knees and butt-kickers in her lane, flexes muscles, and gets ready to run.
She gets in the sprinting posture, leaning forward a bit with the torso upright and shoulders standing wide, slightly away from her face. A deep frown appears on her forehead.
Unlike tall athletes, she cannot take long strides. But her impact time—the duration for which her feet touch the ground—is minimal. These two qualities—a quick start and low impact time—are her biggest strengths and make her running style unique. Ramesh thinks that in the first 30m she might be the fastest in the world. These days, she is focusing on maintaining her starting speed till the finish line.
“Usually, I am the fastest out of the blocks. And I never foul. It happened once, at an event in Kolkata in 2010, when I had nobody to coach me and I was training by myself in my village. I couldn’t beat myself enough over it. I have never fouled since then, not once,” she had told me the previous day.
It is also her competitors that impact her performance. “Tough fight is crucial to do well. If not pushed hard, the body refuses to run. Convincing all the parts of the body to work in tandem at the same time gets hard at times. There is not enough competition in India. Koi acha fighter nahi hai.”
She likes Usain Bolt’s running style. “But Usain Bolt is very tall. I cannot copy his style,” she had said. Her team wins the race.
We’re chatting as she stretches outside the dope-test room at Kanteerava. The tension is gone. This is the most relaxed I’ve seen her since morning. She’s making me laugh with her wit and her original style of narrating stories.
Her phone keeps buzzing to the song, “Bheegi Bheegi sadkon pe main tera intezaar karu (I’m waiting for you on these rain drenched streets).” She receives more than a hundred Whatsapp messages a day, not all from people she knows.
Dutee has 5,000 Facebook friends and needed to put out a message asking people not to send friend requests as Facebook does not allow her to accept any more requests. She found a way around it by creating two more accounts. She often posts her photos, sometimes many in a day, when she wins a competition or is travelling abroad.
As news of Dutee Chand failing a “gender test” was splashed over the media, a few sympathetic voices advised her to quit.
“They said I had competed in four international events. Wasn’t that good enough?” A few, better informed ones told her she could have the surgery the officials had suggested and compete again.
She was devastated. “I only know to run. I have spent all my life doing only this. How could I quit sport?”
Living away since she was 10, Chand didn’t have the opportunity to develop closeness with siblings and parents. She visited home only for festivals for fear of disrupting her training. “Maybe this is why sports became my lifeline. It was not just an important thing but the only thing while I was growing up.”
This was a village where a friend had once snubbed her for hugging. “I had gone back home after a long while. I saw my friend, ran and hugged her. She was flustered. She told me it was not foreign (sic) and asked me not to do this. Log kya kahen gey (What will people say)? I had seen friends hug each other in cities. I thought it cute. But in my village such things are frowned upon,” Chand said.
In the village where public hugging is frowned upon, the news of “Dutee Chand failing a gender test” had reached before her.
After being dropped from the national camp, she had no place to go but back to her village.
An official suggested Dutee leave Bengaluru with the story that her mother had fallen ill but she was against this idea. Saraswati told her not to leave unless they gave an official explanation. Or the authorities themselves sent her home.
The Odisha government was notified of Chand’s ineligibility and sent two female coaches from the state to escort her home. They took an afternoon flight to Bhubaneswar. The director of the sports and youth services department joined them as they travelled to Chakagopalpur in a government car.
The drive along the NH-16, the Chennai-Kolkata highway, took 90 minutes. The car entered the service road and turned into the village, going past the huts and the handful of brick houses of the weavers’ colony.
A handloom is prominent in the verandah of each house, but many have fallen out of regular use. As the car went past the narrow tarred road along the Brahmani river where Dutee went running with her sister, the Garjhat hills that formed the backdrop to her runs were barely visible in the fading light. After a series of sharp turns, the car stopped in front of a house.
The Chands’ house is on an elevated platform that keeps it from flooding in the monsoon. A small stream runs to the left and another house is to its right, with which it shares a wall. A steep ramp, over a metre in length, connects the road to the house. A handloom sits in the verandah with an arched entrance. Like other pucca houses, the walls are unpainted, barring a small portion of the front wall decorated with blue and white tiles.
The director got out of the car first, followed by the two coaches. Chand emerged last.
She climbed the ramp to the house quickly, as she wanted to avoid being seen by neighbours. Her parents were glad that it was dark. But in this village where cars are unusual, people came out of their houses to check what was happening. They saw Dutee and the whispers grew louder.
Her mother was standing at the entrance leaning against the handloom.
“Dutee,” her mother said.
Tears rolled down Chand’s cheeks. Her mother had been crying ever since the family watched the news of her suspension on TV. She had been determined to remain strong, but her resolution deserted her on seeing her girl cry. She started to sob, too. Neither spoke a word.
The officials consoled her mother. They called Dutee the pride of Odisha and told her of their efforts to make her return to sports quickly. They asked her mother not to worry as the chief minister himself was taking interest. Dutee went straight to her room across the verandah.
She would sit for hours together without speaking. She stopped eating. Her family was worried that she might even attempt to kill herself. Occasionally, anger would overwhelm her and she would throw things around.
When she was not crying her heart out, she watched her parents deal with questions over her gender from journalists and people in the village. Her mother was inconsolable after some neighbours told her Chand was a boy and that is why she was not allowed to compete.
“I gave birth to a girl. She has lived and competed as a girl. Why are they now saying she is not a girl?” Saraswati remembers her mother asking.
Any reminder of her athletic career depressed Dutee. Saraswati said she would sit hugging her spikes and tracksuits and cry endlessly. On television, she would watch athletic competitions in tears.
“Other girls have gone to Glasgow. I could not go. Why did they not let me go? Why are they saying things about me? What should I do,” she asked Saraswati.
Chand had not heard of hyperandrogenism before. Saraswati did not know much either. Her illiterate parents could not make any sense of it, and they were worried it would make it hard for Dutee and her four sisters to get married. Managing finances was also on their minds as Chand had lost her income from sports, and there was a fear she would lose her job with the Railways.
Chand missed the tracks, the stadiums, and the rush at the sight of the finish line.
She missed feeling like a champion.
Sports authorities had breached the confidentiality protocols by revealing Chand’s identity and making the case public. Now it was this publicity that came to her help.
Around 600 km away in Kolkata, one such story in a newspaper caught the eye of Dr. Payoshni Mitra, a researcher and activist in the area of gender and sports. Mitra had consulted with the union ministry of youth affairs and sports on the standard operating procedure (SOP) in female hyperandrogenism cases earlier and was not satisfied with the final version of the document after her recommendations were ignored. She was then fighting to get the SOP withdrawn. (It was withdrawn in February 2015).
“I felt no one could help her the way I could as nobody else in India had worked specifically on this issue. I had worked with other athletes including Pinki Pramanik and seen the impact suspicion of gender can have on an athlete. I felt like it was my responsibility to reach out to Dutee,” Mitra said in a Skype conversation.
Mitra went to Chakagopalpur to meet Chand. Initially Dutee was hostile.
“Who are you?
“I have never seen you before. How can you help me? The people who have thrown me out are the only ones who can help. Not you,” She refused to speak to Mitra.
Mitra explained to Saraswati that she could help Dutee if she accompanied her to meet SAI’s chief Jiji Thomson. Dutee agreed, but refused to pay for such “futile” trips from her pocket. SAI paid for the trip to Delhi.
When Thomson asked how he could help during the meeting in Delhi, Dutee said, “You can take me back in the team. That is what you can do.”
She also met the union sports minister Sarbananda Sonowal who promised support.
All she wanted was to get back to sport. She would do anything for it and that is why she initially considered the idea of a hormone suppression therapy. She assumed that she would need to take tablets and injections.
“Koi aur feeling nahi tha (There was no other desire). At 18 and passionate only about sport, I couldn’t foresee why I should not do this to come back to sport quickly,” she explains her initial reaction at the advice that medical intervention could affect her sex life and even her health in the future.
After consulting a doctor whom Odisha Government persuaded to come from London to meet Dutee at Cuttack Medical College, the sprinter made her decision.
“I decided that I did not want to change my body. I said no to correction. I asked Payoshni ma’am if I had another option.”
Mitra said she could appeal against her suspension. She got the idea from Professor Bruce Kidd, a former Canadian Olympian and one of the world’s leading activists for equality in sports, who had come out in Chand’s support.
This was the moment she decided to fight. “I am who I am. I want to remain who I am and compete again,” she told the media when she decided to appeal at the CAS.
Dr. Katrina Karkazis from the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford University had brought Mitra and Kidd together on Chand’s case. The trio with the help of a legal team started work on the appeal.
At this point, SAI boss Jiji Thomson seemed more than eager to make up for the mishandling of Chand’s case. He was the one who had first issued a press release mentioning the words “gender test”.
This time Thomson took an approach quite unexpected of Indian sports bureaucracy. He nominated Mitra, instead of an official, to act as mediator and consultant for Dutee. Thomson agreed when Dutee, advised by Mitra, decided to appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, aware of the massive expenditure the government would have to incur.
This was huge. No Indian athlete had received such support. Santhi Soundarajan and Pinki Pramanik—two well-known cases of athletes coming under gender scrutiny in India—were left to either quit sports or fight for themselves with no help from sports officials.
This happened after the world watched in awe at the way Athletics South Africa and the country rallied behind middle-distance runner Caster Semenya, to the point of allegedly bullying the IAAF to let Semenya retain her world championship and prize money.
Multiple cases of hyperandrogenism had come to light since HA regulations took effect in 2011, but no athlete had ever challenged them. Even Semenya did not challenge IAAF but negotiated the terms of her return to competition.
In her challenge, Chand received support from an international group of scientists, former athletes and bioethicists.
On July 31, 2014, Kidd told SAI there was “little scientific validity to the hyperandrogenism test” and “to date it has only been used against women from developing countries”. He also expressed concern about IAAF counselling hyperandrogenic athletes to undergo corrective surgery or drug treatments. Dr. Karkazis would later give expert testimony in Chand’s favour at the CAS.
However, there was a technical issue in going ahead with the appeal: No official communication had taken place on Chand’s medical examination and her ineligibility to compete.
On August 14, 2014, Thomson invited Chand, Mitra and AFI’s
C.K. Valson to his office in Delhi, where he gave Chand’s test reports to Valson. At this meeting it was decided that AFI would officially notify Chand of her disqualification.
On August 22, 2014 Thomson wrote to the AFI president. Chand’s “[h]yperandrogenism test was positive” and she had been informed of SAI’s recommendation of “exclusion from participation in women’s event till her androgen level is brought down to permissible level” but asked the AFI to formally notify her “immediately so that she can make an appeal against the decision”.
In the letter, he also asked the AFI to address three issues: “The specific detail of her alleged violation of the policy along with copy of the policy” (Hyperandrogenism Regulations); “a deep regret about the fact that Dutee Chand was not clearly told about the test beforehand and the information was not kept confidential”; and “an outline of appeal processes available, with relevant document and a letter stating that with mutual consent AFI and SAI would support her appeal to the CAS”.
In response, AFI drafted a “Decision Letter” dated August 29, 2014, addressed to Chand saying she was “provisionally stopped from participation in any competition in athletics with immediate effect” based on her medical reports from SAI. Valson handed the “Decision Letter” to Chand in person at Railway Athletic Meet in Chennai on August 31.
She was not allowed to compete at the Chennai meet. Her suspension was now official.
The AFI letter was enclosed with copies of IAAF Sex Reassignment Regulations instead of Hyperandrogenism Regulations.
It is not clear whether the AFI confused the two issues or was suggesting a future course of action. Mitra thinks it was a result of AFI’s confusion over the two issues. “IAAF had shifted from gender policy to hyperandrogenism but there still was a lack of education on the issues among the sports bodies that actually implement these rules,” she says.
On September 18, 2014, Dutee sent a letter to Valson requesting AFI to reconsider its decision. She wrote that her high androgen levels were natural and she had not doped or cheated. She asked AFI not to share her records and reports without her consent. She also wrote that she felt perfectly healthy and that medical intervention to reduce the (androgen) level would be invasive, irreversible, and harm her health. The letter urged AFI to support her appeal to the CAS and let her make use of the IAAF policy “that says you can make me provisionally eligible while I contest my case”.
On the same day, Thomson wrote to AFI again asking it to reconsider its decision to disqualify Chand or support her appeal to CAS, informing that SAI intended to support her. SAI is the apex national sports body, which besides maintaining facilities and training athletes, also provides funding to national sports federations, of which AFI is one. It is the top athletics federation in the country.
Under prevailing guidelines, SAI was authorised to conduct tests and analyse the results for hyperandorgenism.
This time, Thomson also called the IAAF policy “unscientific, unfair and unethical” and recognised any medical intervention as “invasive, irreversible and harmful”.
“We appreciate Chand’s courage to appeal the decision,” Thomson added.
Dutee needed to file an appeal within 30 days of suspension.
Just four days short of the deadline, on September 26, 2014, she filed her appeal against AFI and IAAF. Her legal representative asked for arbitration proceedings to be public except for her personal medical records, which she wished to remain private, as the case “raises important issues of public interest and general application”.
While the appeal was going on, Chand worked as a junior ticket collector in Bhusaval. Mitra remembers meeting her at Bhusaval, Maharashtra in late 2014.
“I think this was the toughest period. She had chosen to challenge her suspension but still was not allowed to compete. Some people were advising her that she was wasting time with the appeal. She was under huge pressure to undergo medical intervention and come back to the track quickly. I felt she was on the verge of giving up,” Mitra said.
The meeting prompted Mitra to convince Dutee to request CAS to allow her to compete while the proceedings went on. On November 25, 2014, Chand requested CAS to allow her to compete provisionally.
The request stated that she was “under significant pressure to undergo medical intervention from her major sponsor”.
After IAAF’s consent on December 3, 2014 CAS permitted her to compete at all national-level competitions while awaiting the outcome of CAS proceedings. Later, CAS also permitted her to compete in the Asian Athletics Championships held June 3-7, 2015.
Getting back on track was not easy. “After I restarted training, no matter how hard I tried, my time didn’t improve. That was depressing. People who complained that my hormone level gave me an advantage should have watched me train early in the morning and again till late into the evening. My timing had worsened drastically—from 11.6-11.7 to 12.06 seconds—in the year and a half when I missed out on training after the ban.”
Once she received permission to compete, Ramesh asked Dutee to move to Hyderabad to train with him. She didn’t want to stay at the SAI facility. Badminton legend Pullela Gopichand came forward to help and put her up at his badminton academy in Hyderabad. Since then, “Gopi bhaiya”, as Chand calls him, has been her mentor and a pillar of support.
On December 3, 2014, a number of elite athletes, medical professionals and human rights activists expressed strong opposition to the suspension and wrote to CAS attacking the scientific basis of HA regulations and argued that the “policy exacerbates unfair scrutiny and discrimination of women in sport who are perceived as deviating from gender norms”.
After submission of the written statements by experts and witnesses, a hearing was held at CAS Court Office in Lausanne, Switzerland from March 23-26, 2015.
“These were very tense four days for our entire team. I was the one directly communicating with Dutee and that made me feel responsible towards her. But Dutee told me, ‘We have worked so hard, something good will happen, definitely’. She has tremendous courage. At 19, she could not have made it otherwise,” Mitra said.
For Chand to compete again, she needed to prove that HA regulations did not hold for her. Her Canadian legal team that fought pro bono adopted a broader strategy—HA regulations were invalid not just in her case, but for all athletes.
Over the next 11 months, a case involving complex legal, scientific, factual and ethical issues unfolded, drawing upon a diverse range of expert scientific evidence, accounts of the evolution of HA regulations, the experiences of female athletes subjected to earlier policies of “sex verification”, and philosophical arguments about the meaning of fairness in sport.
Chand’s team argued that HA regulations discriminated against female athletes who faced restriction based on levels of endogenous (naturally present in body) testosterone, while male athletes did not. The regulations also discriminated against athletes on the basis of a natural characteristic—testosterone level.
The IAAF accepted that HA regulations were a restriction and therefore, prima facie, discriminatory on grounds of sex. But they maintained that discrimination was required to ensure fairness in women’s sports: “a reasonable compromise in a difficult situation”.
The CAS panel concluded HA regulations were prima facie discriminatory. It also accepted that the right to compete was a fundamental right and if IAAF continued with the practice, it had to establish that the regulations were “necessary, reasonable and proportionate”, for establishing a level playing field for female athletes.
The second argument dealt with the scientific evidence. HA regulations prohibited a female athlete from competing if the testosterone level was higher than 10nmol/L. IAAF believes testosterone levels above this threshold are in the “male range”, and higher testosterone improves athletic performance.
Chand’s team contested both assumptions. They argued that science could not establish that testosterone levels above 10nmol/L were in the “male range” because there were no distinct female or male ranges. They overlapped as levels varied in individuals in response to an array of environmental, physiological and social factors.
Chand’s team also argued that there was no evidence natural testosterone improves athletic performance in females. Most men can run faster, jump higher and throw farther than most women. Male athletes have a competitive advantage over female athletes of the order of 10-12 per cent. This “male advantage” is attributed to the fact that men usually have greater lean body mass (LBM), which is total body weight minus body fat.
Both parties agreed that LBM contributes to strength and ultimately to performance. But Chand’s team contested IAAF’s belief that higher LBM is caused by higher testosterone. So, the effect of testosterone—the hormone she was said to have in excess—became the centre of the argument.
The most common method of doping involves injections of testosterone. It is accepted that these injections improve athletic performance in both male and female athletes and that is why they’re banned. But Dutee had not doped. Her testosterone level was natural.
Like testosterone, injecting human growth hormone and adrenaline is prohibited under the World Anti-Doping Code. They also exist naturally in varying levels in all athletes. But, unlike testosterone, natural levels of these are not regulated
There are proven instances of hormones impacting a body differently depending on whether they occur naturally or are administered externally.
Dutee’s team argued that her higher testosterone levels did not prove she had an unfair advantage. IAAF could not provide evidence that hyperandrogenic athletes like her had an advantage over other female athletes.
That would not have been enough anyway.
The CAS wanted to quantify the degree of advantage, if any. It wanted to see if the discrimination against hyperandrogenic athlete —a lifetime ban unless they reduced testosterone levels—was proportionate to the advantage they might have.
The panel was not satisfied that higher testosterone might be more advantageous than factors like nutrition, access to specialist training facilities and coaching, and other genetic and biological variations.
After submissions, CAS accepted that testosterone was a key causative factor in the increased LBM in males; that increased LBM conferred a competitive advantage; and that separation between male and female athletes was therefore justifiable for fair competition.
It also said there was little evidence that a hyperandrogenic athlete gains a competitive advantage from her higher testosterone, of the kind that male athletes enjoy over female athletes.
“It (Hyperandrogenism Regulations) is not being used to determine whether an athlete should compete either as a male or as a female. Instead, it is being used to introduce a new category of ineligible female athletes within the female category,” CAS noted.
By not allowing a hyperandrogenic athlete to compete in any (male or female) category, the regulation effectively suspends the athlete’s right to compete, which CAS recognises as a fundamental right.
Chand’s fourth and last argument was that HA regulations operate as “disguised doping rules” against natural testosterone because they establish a threshold above which a female athlete is automatically banned. An athlete who chooses not to undergo medical interventions effectively faces a lifetime ban from all competition, which is the most severe possible sanction in professional sport. Article 4.3.3 of the WADA code provides that its list of prohibited substances is final and cannot be changed. Chand argued that HA regulations were an effort to add endogenous testosterone to the list, which is contrary to the WADA code.
In his closing submissions, her counsel candidly conceded that this ground of attack was the weakest limb of her challenge. This argument was not accepted by the CAS panel.
Judgment was set for July 24, 2015. Mitra came to Hyderabad to be with Chand. She recalls that Chand seemed nervous but hopeful. Even on the day her fate would be decided, she continued with routine training and afterwards went back to her room at the Gopichand Academy.
“Don’t worry, madam. Our efforts will pay off. Everything will be fine. It surely will be,” she told Mitra.
Dutee recalls that her hope sprang from the reaction her testimony gathered at the CAS panel. During the hearing in Lausanne four months earlier (in March), the president of the panel hearing her case, Justice Annabelle Claire Bennett AO (Officer of the Order of Australia), Federal Court of Australia, Sydney, asked what she wanted.
Dutee recollects saying: “Madam, I don’t know if you’re going to change the rules. All I know is that I want to compete again. If you give me a chance to run again, I will be extremely happy. When a child fails in an exam, he is given another chance. If you deny him the chance, his life will be ruined. Sport is all I have known and done since I was little. If you stop me here, I would not know what else to do. Please let me run again.”
“The judge madam asked me to focus on my training. I took this as a positive sign. I felt I was going to get another chance at running.”
At 7 p.m. on July 27, Jim Bunting, a Canadian lawyer, called her on Skype. Bunting worked at Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP in Toronto, and was representing Chand.
Bunting’s broad smile was reassuring. He spoke in English; Mitra translated: Dutee Chand had won the right to compete and HA regulations were suspended for two years.
“I had appealed for the rule (HA Regulations) to be revoked. But at that moment, all I could think was: ‘I am coming back to the track. Nobody will stop me now.’
“I was very, very happy,” she says.
While the Skype conversation was still on, Dutee was planning on participating at international meets and winning medals. She called Ramesh and shared the news. Within minutes, her family was calling her. She was in the news again, and this time for a good reason.
“Once I had fully absorbed the joy of returning, I realised what the judgment had done. Beyond myself, I was happy that I got to be the reason for bringing an end, even if temporarily, to the rule that has caused pain and humiliation to so many athletes.”
The CAS suspended the HA regulations for female track and field sport for two years, citing insufficient evidence of a link between enhanced androgen levels and improved athletic performance. “In the absence of such evidence, the panel is unable to conclude that hyperandrogenic female athletes enjoy such a significant performance advantage that it is necessary to exclude them from competing in the female category… In these circumstances, the panel is unable to uphold the validity of the regulations,” CAS observed.
The panel also gave IAAF until July 2017 to submit evidence to support HA regulations. If evidence is not provided, HA regulations will be automatically revoked. In case IAAF submits such evidence, Chand will have the right of counter-argument.
Chand’s suspension after failing the hyperandrogenism test divided the athletics community. Some felt her condition gave her an unfair advantage over other athletes. One of India’s greatest athletes, P. T. Usha said those contesting in the female category should be unambiguously female.
She said: “I do not have details of Dutee’s case so I cannot speak about her specifically. But take Caster Semenya, for instance. She looks like a boy, she is a boy. I hear she has also married a girl. Having something special is fine, but that special must tilt towards womanhood for someone to compete in women’s category. Otherwise what was wrong with letting Santhi Soundarajan compete? They could have also allowed her, she now dresses like a man.
“There must be something to mark a distinction between men and women— testosterone in normal female range and at least a uterus. While talking about ‘special ones’, one must also think about normal girls who compete with them.”
The CAS judgment has had a tremendous impact on sport, and has given hyperandrogenic female athletes dignity.
“When I heard Dutee was hyperandrogenic I felt it was unfair that I had to compete against her. All the other girls around us thought the same. But now that the court has cleared her to compete, I do not see any reason to think of her differently. In fact, at a personal level, it works great for me that Dutee is running; there are hardly any good competitors otherwise. Competing with her pushes me to improve,” said Srabani Nanda, Chand’s archrival.
Since the judgment, Chand has resumed her international career in stunning fashion. She set a national record in the 60m heats at the Asian Indoors in Doha in February, and became the first Indian woman to make it to the World Indoor Meet in Portland in March.
However, the government did not listen to her requests to be sent abroad for training. She was included in the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS), which offers potential Olympics medal winners customised training at institutes with world-class facilities, only after she broke the 100m national record. She declined the offer as she had only three months before the Olympics and did not want to waste time travelling and settling down in a new environment with a new coach and new training regime.
After breaking the national record but missing out on Olympics qualification by one-hundredth of a second, she had no luck over the next two months. She competed in four events, but could not touch the qualifying time of 11.32 seconds.
On June 25, Dutee was in Almaty, Kazakhstan for the 26th Kosanov memorial meet. There were only 16 days left for Olympics qualification.
Her first race was the 100m heat, facing Kazakhstan’s Viktoriya Zyabkina. The two know each other. In February, she broke Zyabkina’s four-year Asian Indoor Championships record. And just a week before, at a race in Kyrgyzstan, Zyabkina pushed Chand to second spot despite her strong start. Zyabkina is eight inches taller and capable of bigger strides. She is also more experienced. She overtook Chand in the Kyrgyzstan race after the 60m mark when she lost her natural rhythm trying to outpace Zyabkina.
Chand and her coach worked on their strategy after Kyrgyzstan. “She is great at starting a race. So our new strategy was to stay relaxed in the last 20m and not pull too hard to keep pace with a competitor,”
Ramesh tells me. “When you stay focused in the last stretch, you can give your best. Otherwise your body stiffens, as happened in Kyrgyzstan. In the final, Viktoria relaxed after 80m, while Dutee pulled really hard, tightening her lower back and losing her natural style and rhythm.”
This change worked. In the Almaty heats, Dutee shot off the block like a bullet, with Zyabkina closely behind. She maintained the lead right till the finish line. She was through in 11.30 seconds, smashing her own national record by 0.03 seconds and qualifying for Rio.
Since qualifying times were introduced for the Olympics in 2000, she is the first Indian woman to make it. The last was P. T. Usha, 36 years ago, in the Moscow games of 1980.
Usha exited the 1980 Olympics after clocking 12.27 seconds in the heats. Dutee will be only the fifth Indian woman to compete in the Olympics sprint, the others being Mary D’Souza and Nilima Ghosh (1952), Mary Leela Rao (1956) and Usha (1980).
Ramesh describes her qualification as the result of a “wonderful combination of perfect track, weather, and competitors”.
“Everything came together for her. She got some rest between races in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. The journey between the two venues was short and the weather was the same. It was a great race, where three girls qualified for the Olympics,” he said.
A few hours later, in the 100m final, Chand smashed the national record again, clocking 11.24 seconds.
Indian women athletes had managed to move the 100m national record by 0.01 seconds in 31 years; Chand in two months moved it by 0.14 seconds.
It is the eighth day of the Puri rath yatra—the day before bahuda, when Lord Jagannath and his siblings return in their chariots to the original temple after an eight-day stay at Gundicha temple. Over 5 lakh devotees have arrived. It is a chaos of devotion.
It is bhog time for the Lord. Earthen pots of food are being carried to the sanctum sanctorum and brought back after being offered to the deity.
Chand is always careful about her health. “Even a simple cold weakens the body and affects training for several days,” she had said.
Yet, she braves the rath yatra. At the temple, she jostles with the crowd, though a policeman is leading her for “VIP darshan”. After a lot of pushing and shoving, she gets to offer her prayers.
She buys Sankudi Mahaprasad sold in the temple courtyard. She squats down and shares the rice, dalma (a traditional Odiya sweet dal cooked with vegetables), and mixed curries with her siblings and friend Gayatree Dash.
Once outside the temple, people flock to her, wanting selfies. Journalists jostle for a sound bite and visuals while a man tries pushing his son into the frame. A cop hustles her to meet the ADGP and district collector who are waiting. Dutee stops to get a photo of herself in front of the temple, and then a few more with her friend and siblings.
Most of the 60 km journey from Bhubaneswar to Puri as well as the return is spent on the phone, answering questions from the media. A reporter asks if she feels like she is in a dream, referring to her Rio qualification.
“This is not a joke, it is not a dream. This is what I have worked very, very hard every day for the last 14 years. It is not a dream,” she says.
She has received a hero’s welcome on her arrival in her home state. Her 48-hour trip to Odisha, which was meant to be a visit home, is spent in Bhubaneswar meeting dignitaries including the CM and sports officials, and attending felicitation functions. She has no time to go to her village. Her family meets her in Bhubaneswar.
Things at her village have changed since Saraswati received a Whatsapp message from Chand about her Olympics qualification. People who once criticised her for running in shorts are calling her the pride of their village and of India.
Her mother started to cry at the news. “My mother does not know what Olympics, international or national meets are. All she knows is that her daughter who was crying inconsolably a year ago looks extremely happy right now,” said Saraswati while her mother sorted flowers that Chand had received the previous day, at her home at Chakagopalpur.
“I will light an akhanda deepa (eternal flame) in front of Maa Tarini and fast on the day she is running. If she gets a gold medal, I will arrange a feast for the entire village,” Dutee’s mother Akhuji said.
During her trip, Dutee held a house warming for a furnished house in Bhubaneswar gifted by Kalinga Institute of Industrial Technology, a private university in Odisha that has aided her and where she is undertaking a law course.
Chand earns more money than her family ever imagined. She treats this as a responsibility. She has seen her parents toil at the handloom when she was a child. “I cannot forget that. They should not feel the need to do that.”
She is hoping a good show in Rio will help make enough to finish building the village house as well. Her bosses in the Railways have promised a big hike and promotion. She is excited about Anand Mahindra’s promise of a Mahindra XUV 500, her dream car.
A major car manufacturer has approached her for promotion of a new car. A filmmaker approached her in late July to discuss a biopic. She has asked them to get in touch after the Olympics.
Her coach has already sanctioned a 15-day leave after the Games. She wants to travel around Odisha, starting from the Sun Temple in Konark, with her friends.
Chand’s race is scheduled for August 12. She is doing drills for speed endurance and strengthening her lower back, and training to not lose speed in the last 40 metres.
The best timings in the women’s 100m this season are around 10.80. Ramesh has set her a target of 11.10-11.20 seconds and is trying not to think about whether she makes it to the semi-finals or finals.
“Sport is unpredictable. When your rhythm is good, when you have a winning streak, you can do anything. She can do what no Indian woman has done so far. I am banking more on her tremendous fighting instincts than strategy this time,” Ramesh said.
Chand recognises Rio as her chance to prove herself. Her future after July 2017—the cut-off for the IAAF appeal—remains uncertain. She has a brief window of certainty when her eligibility cannot be questioned and knows it better than anybody else.
If the rules do not come in her way, the 20-year-old is eager to take on the foreign “fighters”, in this Olympics and in the future. “I am raring to fight and win. I just hope that all my future fights are on the track,” she said.
“Wouldn’t it be great if I win an Olympics medal,” Chand said, almost like she was speaking to herself. I asked if she would bring home a medal at the next Olympics. “Next nahi, isi baar! Poora try karungi (Not next, this time! I will try my best),” she said.
The cover story of the August 2016 edition of Fountain Ink.
(Monica Jha is a journalist based in Bengaluru.)
(Sriram Vittalamurthy is a freelance photographer and journalist based in Bengaluru.)
(Shamsheer Yousaf is a freelance journalist based in Bengaluru.)
Corrections, August 17, 2016:
a. Sports Authority of India paid for Dutee Chand's trip to Delhi from Odisha.
b. The doctor from London was called by the Odisha government.
c. Dr. Katrina Karkazis brought together Payoshini Mitra and Bruce Kidd to work on Chand's case. An earlier version of the story said Karkazis had joined Mitra and Kidd to work on the case.