By Kahini Iyer Aug. 28, 2018
Dutee Chand has come a long way: She’s won a fight against the sexist practices of the International Olympic Committee. Her silver medal at the 100m event at Asian Games comes on the back of a horrifying struggle that challenged her very identity as a woman.
very athlete competing at the Asian Games has a story of profound struggle behind them. Most have pushed their bodies to limits that we couch-potato civilians can never fathom, grinding every day just to jump half an inch higher, run a few milliseconds faster. The searing serves and thrilling goals that keep us glued to the Games are made from sacrificing any semblance of a normal life in order to become the best.
And yet, no Indian athlete stands out quite like sprinter Dutee Chand. The 22-year-old has fought hard, not only to clinch the first women’s 100m silver at the Asian Games since the glory days of PT Usha, but to compete at all. Dutee’s journey from a rural family of weavers to Jakarta has been marked by her tenacity: She spent years training barefoot on gravel roads, unable to afford a pair of sneakers.
Incredibly, this was not the hardest challenge she has faced in her life.
In 2014, despite the massive promise she’d shown as an under-18 runner, Dutee was barred from competing at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games by the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF). What could cause an athlete at her peak to be rejected by the Federation, suffering a setback that would haunt her even four years later, at today’s race?
Really, it was because she was so good. With the very fact of her athleticism being seen as suspicious for a woman, Dutee was made to undergo a series of horrifying medical examinations to determine her gender and whether she could compete as a woman – a standard practice for the IAAF and the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Her testosterone levels were tested without her having any knowledge of the procedure, and when they were found to be high, she was subjected to poking and prodding of her labia, clitoris, and breasts, just to prove an identity that she had carried all her life. Apparently, her body didn’t pass muster as feminine, and Dutee was banned.
Unfortunately, this mistreatment of women athletes who aren’t deemed feminine enough is far from new. These tests have been used for decades, and just last week, Serena Williams was targeted by the French Tennis Federation for wearing a catsuit, designed to help prevent the blood clots she struggled with after her pregnancy. Although many defenders called out the obvious sexism in policing the world’s greatest tennis player for not wearing a skirt, the Federation wouldn’t budge on the dress code.
For her part, Dutee Chand, a teenager from an Odisha village, refused to be told who she was, and she stepped up to challenge the IAAF and IOC’s rules about sex determination. Even though she had never heard of testosterone, or hyperandrogenism (the condition of having elevated levels of the hormone), Dutee knew that no quirk of anatomy could change her status as a woman.
With the help of lawyers and activists, Dutee forced the committees to review their testosterone testing guidelines, pointing out that biological advantages like long legs are not considered unfair. A subsequent study found that apart from a slight edge in the 400m, testosterone levels had no impact on women runners’ performance. The hormone that had been considered the deciding factor in sex determination, turned out to be an excuse to deny the truth of how strong or fast a woman can be.
Even though she had never heard of testosterone, or hyperandrogenism (the condition of having elevated levels of the hormone), Dutee knew that no quirk of anatomy could change her status as a woman.
Now, Dutee, along with women runners around the world, is finally allowed to attain the excellence she’s always carried inside her. We may see her as an inspiration for girls around the country, whose shoulders hold the hopes of a billion. But to forget that her spark was nearly smothered by sexism is to do her a grave disservice.
Still, thanks to athletes like Dutee, the tides may be turning. Today, Serena Williams smashed the US Open – a victory that has become predictable to the point of being boring – while clad in a fluffy black tutu. It was a powerful message for those who look to explain away her tremendous talent and athletic prowess. Like Serena, Dutee’s Asian Games victory showed us that she has already figured out how to respond to her critics: By coming ready to run, and making history.