Dutee Chand doesn’t know how to give up. “My whole life has been about fighting for what I want, what I believe in," says the 23-year-old sprinter, with a proud smile.
That’s why the girl who as a seven-year-old used to train by running barefoot around a lake in Odisha’s Chaka Gopalpur village is now the first Indian athlete to win two golds at the 2014 Asian Junior Championships and a gold at the 2019 World University Games. That’s why when a ruling banned her from competing in 2014 in competitions because of her high natural testosterone levels, she challenged it and won a precedent-setting case. That’s why she’s the first openly gay sportsperson of India, and a poster girl for queer pride in a country still coming to terms with homosexuality. To millennials across the country, she’s both an inspiration and an icon. But it’s not just India that’s watching her—Time magazine has put her in its 100 Next list of rising stars and up-and-comers who are shaping their industries and the future. Soon after she came out in May 2019, a well-known advocate for gay rights Ellen DeGeneres tweeted in her support.
In an interview with Mint, Chand, who recently became the brand ambassador of sports company Puma, talks about her preparation for the Summer Olympics in July, her strategy for success and how her life changed after coming out. Edited excerpts:
How are the preparations for the Olympics going?
Right now, life is home and track. I wake up at 5am, get ready and reach Kalinga stadium (in Bhubaneswar) by 6. There, I train till 9.30am and then I’m back home at 10. After 75 minutes, I do my core exercises at home. Then after some rest I’m back at the stadium at 3pm, doing either a track workout or a gym workout, depending on what I did in the morning. By 8pm, I’m back at home.
That’s my life right now. Everything else is on hold. My studies are also on hold. People study to become educated; I don’t see a need for myself to become educated. I want to give my best performance in Tokyo and be successful on the track and in life so that the world remembers me.
What is your strategy for success?
Success comes but with time. People want to achieve things very quickly; they are not patient. When I was a kid, I dreamt of being a runner. My mother and father always told me to go after what I wanted. I went after running. When I started running, I just wanted to do well so that I could get a job in the government sector, earn good, steady income, change the financial situation at home, and make my parents happy.
But no. God showed me a different way. He showed me that I had real talent, that I could do more than just participate in local competitions. My God showed me that I had the ability to make my family and my country proud. That’s why I concentrated on sports and worked hard.
And slowly and steadily, I achieved my medals and tried to break records. I won’t stop till I get my Olympic medal. That’s the ultimate goal, at least at the moment.
And after that?
After I have achieved the Olympics medal, I think I would have achieved success. After that, I will find my next path.
Where would you like your next path to take you?
Hopefully, I will do two things. I want to create a running academy for children. I don’t want another child aspiring to be a runner to run barefoot or run around a lake the way I did. I want to build a stadium where they can train. I want to make their dreams come true.
And I want to work for the welfare of society. That’s why I want to become a leader and join politics. And yes, get married.
What were the reactions from the people closest to you after you came out, and how did it affect you?
We have advertisements for everything so that people can be informed about a product, a service or an issue. But there is no awareness about homosexuality, and people don’t talk about it much in public.
When I said I love a woman, many people in my village were shocked. Some were clueless. They didn’t even know what it meant to love a person of the same gender. Others were charging against me for saying and doing something that was against our religion. “What will a girl and a girl do?" (implying that a romantic relationship required a man). People behaved as if we were doing something that the world doesn’t need.
People in my village told me, “Dutee, your days are numbered. You will be back in the village again (referring to the 2014 case when the International Association of Athletics Federations barred her from competing internationally against women because her body produced high levels of the male hormone, testosterone. She challenged the rule and it was temporarily suspended)."
For a month, it was extremely tough. It affected my training. I was preparing for the World University Games (held in Naples, Italy, from 3 to 14 July last year; she won a gold), but I just couldn’t concentrate.
Were you prepared for the backlash against your decision to come out?
A child doesn’t know what will happen if they put their fingers in hot water. It’s only after they do it that they realize the consequences. It was the same with me.
I was extremely nervous and scared about how people, media and my family would react. What if my fans stopped loving me? Or what if I was asked not to participate in sports again? I couldn’t sleep for nights. But, at the same time, I had to say it. I deserve to live my life the way I want to. I owe it to myself. This is how I choose to live.
I checked with my advisers and lawyers. Their advice was I should tell the truth. The said it would in no way affect my career since there was no such rule that would forbid anyone from participating because of their sexual identity. I even called the International Federation and asked them if I would be allowed to play after my confession. They said it was a personal matter.
I also called Adille Sumariwalla (president of Athletics Federation of India). He too said it was a personal matter and offered to help in case someone discriminated against me. Achyuta Samanta (a social worker and founder of Odisha’s Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences, which provides free education to nearly 30,000 tribal students) also supported me.
When my family finally accepted my relationship, I knew I was on the right path. My fans’ love has only grown. And more importantly, this is who I am, this is how I chose to live. People need to deal with it.
On the track, how do you deal with a slump in performance?
Building a steady career in sports is tricky. One small injury can suddenly end your career. In November 2017, while preparing for the Commonwealth Glasgow competition, I sustained a fracture in the hand while doing a huddle exercise. I couldn’t participate in Glasgow. I was in very bad shape.
I motivated myself to keep it moving. I was exercising in a cast. One day, I forgot that I had a fracture and I worsened my injury. Then my doctor asked me to take complete rest for 10 days. I dreamt for 10 days straight that they were calling out my name during a competition but I was not coming out.
When you are not in the right frame, physically or mentally, it’s difficult not to worry but you have to remind yourself that things will get better eventually because they have to get better.
Before you, Hima Das was signed by a sports brand as their brand ambassador. Companies are finally looking beyond Bollywood celebrities and cricketers for endorsement. What do you think has brought about this shift in attitude?
Earlier, brands would associate themselves with sportspersons who were doing well and were famous. They were riding on their fame. Nobody paid much heed to athletics, and so, not many even knew sportspersons in athletics. Cricket matches go on for a long time, while our runs end very quickly, in a matter of minutes. We don’t get much space in newspapers. So, our visibility has always been less. But now, brands are signing sportspeople to support and promote them. Athletics has enough people who belong to poor families. Brands are recognizing this and they know that if they support and promote us, we will perform better, and make the country proud. And in the process, they will look good.
How would you describe the past decade?
From a girl who used to run barefoot around a lake to becoming a sportsperson recognized across the world, it’s been a long, hard journey. People now see me for my sport, for my hard work and for what I stand. Now I just want to make my dream come true.
What do you dream of?
Making a bigger name for myself, building a running academy in a rural area, making a career for myself in politics. And yes, I want to make same-sex marriage legal. I want to marry the love of my life.