India

Meet India’s Barefoot Sprint Queen Dutee Chand Who Fought Against Odds to Fulfil Her Dream

New Delhi (Sputnik): The rural parts of India are well-known for churning out world-famous athletes. One such jewel is Dutee Chand. From struggling to have food put on the table in her family of nine, to training barefoot for competitions, India’s sprint queen Dutee Chand has endured every hardship to reach where she is today.

Asian Games champion Dutee Chand is all set to receive one of the country’s most prestigious sports laurels, the Arjuna Award, after being nominated by the Athletics Federation of India in June. She is among the 26 top athletes of the country.   

Dutee comes from a weaver family. She hasn’t forgotten her roots and all the obstacles she has overcome to emerge as one of the country’s most cherished athletes.

In a conversation with Sputnik, Dutee talked about her journey starting with a humble background, the challenges of training for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics amid the pandemic, and what has changed in her life after she came out as the first gay athlete of India.

The 24-year-old athlete recalls that during her childhood, she would run barefoot while training because buying shoes was beyond her family’s financial reach.

“I belonged to a destitute family of nine members, who could afford one meal a day. Having food in the afternoon meant we have to sleep [on an] empty stomach at night. Whatever monetary prize that I used to win in racing competitions at school, I used to invest it in sports”, she said.

Dutee and her sister took up sports so that their expenses could be taken up by the coast of Odisha state’s sports hostel.

Rising up from that level, the sprinter emerged as a silver medallist in both 100m and 200m at the Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Qualifying for the Rio Olympics, Dutee wrote history in 2019 by becoming the first Indian to bag a gold medal in 100m at the World Universidad in the Italian city of Naples, .

However, not everyone is as lucky as her. While several aspiring youngsters drop out of athletics due to poverty, the majority of them also hail from rural backgrounds.

India’s 2018 performance at the Asian Games was spirited by track and field performances put up by the likes of Hima Das, Swapna Barman, and javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra. Stories that proclaimed their victory over abject poverty were ubiquitous in the media.

Pandemic and Training

In COVID times, Dutee says her training has been badly affected, as almost every sector in the country is undergoing a fund crunch amid the pandemic-caused lockdown curbs.

“My dreams came crashing down with the pandemic. Because of the lockdown, several competitions that I was scheduled to participate in were either postponed or cancelled”, she says.

Talking about the challenges in sports and how sometimes players suddenly spring into the limelight but fade away gradually, Dutee says there should be funding and support even when a sportsperson is undergoing a low phase in their career.

“Whenever an athlete performs well, he or she gets a lot of support and funding, but when their performance goes down, there’s complete scarcity. Therefore, to climb up from that low-phase again is a big task. If athletes don’t get it [support] on time, it can destroy their career”, she says.

She says there’s never a dry period for popular sports like cricket or tennis, as several private entities sponsor competitions throughout the year. However, government competitions happen only two or three times a year.

On Coming Out

The sprint queen became the first openly gay athlete from India when she declared her love for a woman from her village, Chaka Gopalpur, in 2019. But her family and villagers turned against her, inviting hardships into her life.

“When I came out, I openly wanted to tell people about my relationship and life partner. At first, people said my choice was against the culture and traditions. Some refused to accept me as a girl and said I would never be able to play again”.

But when India’s Supreme Court decriminalised homosexuality in 2018, Dutee says educated people started to support me and her fans and followers supported her once again.

During the 2014 Commonwealth Games, the Athletics Federation of India dropped her from the contingent at the 11th hour, stating that hyperandrogenism made her ineligible to compete as a woman athlete.

Hyperandrogenism is a medical condition where there is a high level of androgens in females. She termed it the most difficult phase of her life as an athlete.

However, she approached the court, which lifted her suspension from participating in games.

Arjuna Award

As Dutee now readies herself to accept the coveted Arjuna Award in recognition of her outstanding achievement in sports from President Ram Nath Kovind, the sprinter says it has motivated her to work even harder to qualify for the upcoming 2021 Tokyo Olympics.

“I have been playing for the country for many years now. I was already putting my heart and soul in training for the Tokyo Olympics scheduled for next year…the award also comes with a lot of responsibility as the whole country sets its eyes on you and your performance after receiving such an honour”, the athlete adds. 

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