In India, track and field can never reach the stature of cricket. Probably not even when India wins its first track and field Olympic gold medal. Corporates have largely ignored Indian track and field athletes.
But why even compare? Why not just celebrate achievements in both.
And that’s exactly what sportswriter Sundeep Misra’s Fiercely Female is about – celebrating athlete Dutee Chand, who rose from absolute poverty to become a national champion, and then took on the world athletics body when she was accused of being a ‘man’. She won the case, and went on to pick up two silver medals in the 2018 Asian Games. She became the first openly gay athlete in India in 2019, when she spoke up about her same-sex relationship.
Phew! That's quite a ride.
Fiercely Female, published by Westland, highlights the interesting journey of the sprinter whose personal life made the news more often than her struggle to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics 2021. Everyone wants to know more about her same-sex relationship than dwell on her sprint timings.
“I have always believed that everyone should have the freedom to love. There is no greater emotion than love and it should not be denied. The Supreme Court of India has also struck down the old law. I believe nobody has the right to judge me as an athlete because of my decision to be with who I want. It is a personal decision, which should be respected. I will continue to strive to win medals for India at international meets,” Dutee is quoted in the book.
This is just one side of the coin.
The book explores why Dutee - now training in Patiala for the Olympics - figured out the best solution for herself. She quietly ignored recommendations to take hormone suppressants or go under the knife to reduce the levels of testosterone her body was producing. Some told her to give up athletics, some asked her to withdraw and live with the stigma all her life.
Dutee defied all, she fought against what she called sexist rules.
Misra writes in his book how Dutee - shattered and tired of the insinuations - called Jiji Thomson, then Sports Authority of India (SAI) director general, and asked him to intervene. Thomson realised what Dutee was going through and stepped in at the right moment.
Here's how things worked: Indian sports officials reached out to Dr Katrina Karkazis, an anthropologist and ethicist at Stanford. For many years, Karkazis was advocating against hyperandrogenism regulations. Karkazis reached out to a 1964 Olympian long-distance runner from Canada, Bruce Kidd.
Kidd had been also vocal against the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) for their policies on hyperandrogenism. When Kidd - currently principal of the University of Toronto at Scarborough - got the email from Karkazis, he was in Glasgow. It was in July 2014. He was informed of Dutee’s fate and how the Indian athlete was suspended after failing the hyperandrogenism test.
At a meeting of the Commonwealth nations' sports ministers, Kidd told SAI officials that they must back their athlete, stand by her. He encouraged the SAI officials to tell the Indian government to challenge the decision. Finding a lawyer was tough, no one had heard of hyperandrogenism. Eventually, Jim Bunting, a young lawyer from Toronto emerged. He agreed to fight the case pro-bono, and the Indian government - after lots of huffing and puffing - eventually agreed to stand by Dutee.
The book says more trouble emerged; the Athletic Federation of India (AFI) said it was not keen to back Dutee. AFI Big Boss Adille Sumariwalla was not at all interested in India fighting the case for Dutee. Despite the lawyer fighting pro-bono, there would be some costs and the bill could reach almost a crore of rupees.
But good sense prevailed, and an appeal was filed in September 2014.
An important argument that came up was about swimmer Michael Phelps. He had several genetic advantages which gave his kick an unusual range and helped him recover from high-intensity exercise. Phelps was way ahead of his competitors. Did the Games' controlling body ask Phelps the same questions it was asking Dutee, the Indians asked in their appeal? So why push Dutee to the brink? Now, the Games' controlling body sat up and took notice.
The book has a very touching comment by Dutee which appeared in The New York Times on Dutee’s case. The daily quoted her as saying: “It is like in some societies, they used to cut off the hand of people caught stealing. I feel this is the same kind of primitive, unethical rule. It goes too far.”
The book quotes Dutee’s mother Akhaji as saying she has got over the fact that her daughter now lives with a woman. Akhaji says she will not call her daughter during the Tokyo Games. She knows Dutee’s confidence stems from her relationship, the sprinter feels secure.
“Dutee believes that given time, issues resolve themselves. An athlete doesn’t run forever. At some point, the training stops, there are no more competitions. Some look towards home. Time would have gone by, erasing bad memories, highlighting the good ones. People become wiser, the focus shifts,” writes Misra.
All of it is now past.
At the time of writing on Friday, June 25, 2021, Dutee is running faster than ever. On June 21, she shattered her own national record of 11.22 in the women’s 100m at the Grand Prix 4 in Patiala by clocking 11.17 seconds. The Olympic qualification time for the event is 11.15 seconds. Now she will be looking to do better and book an automatic berth, though she is on the verge of making it to the Tokyo Games based on her world rankings – she is ranked between 40-43. The world’s top 56 runners will make it to Tokyo.
Dutee has already shattered her national record; Misra says she has a terrific chance of climbing higher in the IAAF rankings. After all, getting into the semifinals at Tokyo is a huge achievement, a massive step for an Indian sprinter.
The brilliantly researched book says in a long paragraph: “The big challenge for Dutee is to refocus on Olympics training. Interviews to TV stations in Odisha suggest otherwise, as talk shows and one to one interviews still wind their way to the now cliched conversation of her being gay. None of them venture into asking in-depth questions on training, diet, targets, and the future beyond Tokyo. Dutee is only 24 and can easily dominate her event not only in India but also in the continent. There should be no doubt that India’s best 100m sprinter can and should target the 2024 Paris Olympic Games as the pinnacle of her career.”Is the sports ministry listening?