When Dutee Chand runs in the 100 m women's athletics event at the Rio Olympics today, she will be carrying the torch for all women who have faced daunting obstacles and risen above them. Chand, who began her journey in the village of Gopalpur in Odisha, is also an icon for millions of young women who want to break into competitive sports.
Chand's story is remarkable, not just in India, but for changing the international debate on gender and sport. In June, Chand became only the second Indian woman to compete in the 100 m event after PT Usha. Before that, the 20-year-old had fought an important battle to change the practice of gender testing of athletes.
Chand was born to a poor family of weavers. She started running at the age of four, following the footsteps of her elder sister Saraswati, a national-level athlete, and eventually secured a scholarship that took her to a government school in Bhubaneswar. In 2014, she became the first Indian athlete to get two gold medals at the Asian Junior Athletics Championships.
"It was difficult to train. I didn't have shoes, so was forced to run barefoot. I didn't have the right clothes to train as well," Chand said of her childhood in an interview with The Times of India. "In winters, I used to shiver while running but had to run anyway."
Yet soon after, the sprinter was banned from competing after failing the gender test. Chand was asked to undergo a blood test to measure hormones, a chromosome analysis and a gynaecological exam. The sprinter had hyperandrogenism, a condition which produces higher levels of testosterone than found in the average female body.
Like other athletes with hyperandrogenism, Chand could have either given up running or undertaken medical treatment, in the form of hormone therapy or surgery, to lower her androgen levels. Instead, she chose to challenge the rule that made women who naturally produce high amounts of testosterone, ineligible to compete.
The 2011 rule was instituted by the International Association of Athletics Federation after South African sprinter Caster Semenya had to undertake a gender test in 2009. Semenya was later cleared and allowed to compete. Like Chand, Semenya will be competing in the 800 m event at the Rio Olympics.
"I want to remain who I am and compete again. I have lived my life as a girl," Chand told The Indian Express in an interview in 2014. She managed to secure the support of the Sports Authority of India, the Athletics Federation of India and the sports ministry, with her legal team arguing that the ban was discriminatory.
After a period of one year, in which she missed the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games, the Court of Arbitration for Sport made a landmark ruling in her favour in July 2015. It suspended the hyperandrogenism tests for two years, asking the International Association of Athletics Federations to provide scientific evidence that higher levels of naturally-occurring testosterone could give an unfair advantage to an athlete's performance. Chand's ban was also lifted, paving the way for her to try and qualify for Rio.
In July, a month after being selected for the Olympics, Chand tweeted about why it was so important for her. "Doesn't matter, gold, silver of bronze.. what matters most is I run. For my country. For the #TriColor."Suggest a correction