Kolkata: Dutee Chand, the fastest Indian woman, is not just your another athlete trying to make the cut for the Tokyo Olympics. Neither it is yet another inspirational story of a gifted athlete from a coastal town in the eastern Indian state of Odisha making her mark on the track in the international arena - but a lot more chequered one.
The 25-year-old, whom some refer to India’s Castor Semenya, had successfully challenged the world athletics body’s stance on hyperandrogenism which allowed her to come back into competition after a gap of nearly two years. Then in mid-2019, she created quite a storm by being the first professional athlete in India to admit about a same sex relationship - a revelation which polarised public opinion on her in social media.
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All such attention has, however, failed to detract her from the immediate goal of making it to her second Olympics in Tokyo - with the COVID-19 pandemic scuppering plans of several athletes globally to meet the qualifying mark for the Summer Games. All that matters for her now is a magic timing of 11.15 seconds, the qualifying mark for 100m women’s sprint in Olympics, and she still has two events - the Indian Grand Prix and inter-state championship this month to reach her goal.
‘‘Nothing can beat the experience of running in the Olympics. I am extremely hopeful about making it either on the basis of my world ranking of 42 or through a straight qualifying. The cut-off for qualification is 11.15 sec and my best is 11.22, there are two more competitions left where I will give it my best shot,’’ said Dutee.
Speaking during a virtual interaction, facilitated by her new sponsors Senco Gold & Diamonds on Wednesday, the affable athlete sounded a pragmatic note about her Olympics aspirations. ‘‘See, I can’t give you a guarantee about timing. Our preparation has taken a hit with a number of events, like the world relay in Portland and a Kyrgystan event being cancelled due to the pandemic. The level of competition in Olympics, where women runners do 10.6 is at a different level but I am training to be at my best. The final list of athletes will be out by June 29,’’ said Dutee from her training base of Sports Authority of India in Patiala.
It was quite a significant gesture from a jewellery line to rope in someone like Dutee Chand as brand ambassador - surely a departure from using their practice of using film celebrities. Suvankar Sen, CEO of the company, explained the rationale: ‘‘We have had sportspersons endorsing our brands in the likes of Sourav Ganguly and Swapna Burman, gold medallist heptathlete in the last Asian Games.
‘‘However, we had chosen to have Dutee as she is an achiever from the LGBT community who has gone on to make it big. She is a sporing heroine and we are honoured by associating outselves with her,’’ he said.
The journey of Dutee, in her own words, had been one of struggle and endless controveries. ‘‘I come from a weavers’ family and we were six sisters and one brother. My earliest memories of running was barfeet next to the river so that I don’t hurt myself,’’ she recollected.
The first medal in an international competition was a bronze in the women’s 200 metres event at the Asian Athletics Championship 2013 in Pune. The same year, she also became the first Indian to reach the 100 m final at the World Youth Championships. She won the silver medal in women’s 100 m at the 2018 Asian Games in Incheon, bringing home India’s first medal in this high profile race since 1998 before adding another silver in the 200m.
Life for an Olympics-bound athlete can be tough, and Dutee has been no exception. ‘‘It’s a six to seven hour training regimen in Patiala, which includes speed and endurance training, swimming and weight training. We have got a young and talented 4 x 100m relay team too. The cut-off for Olympics is 43.05, and we have a realistic chance of achieving it,’’ she said.
How has she been able to balance the media attention about her personal life and career? ‘‘See, I am not doing anything new. Love is not a crime. When the question of marriage comes, we will see,’’ Dutee added as a parting shot about her partner.