In the promo of Jhalak Dikhla Jaa 10, the athlete Dutee Chand, one of the celebrity contestants, is seen performing in a futuristic blue body suit. At the end of her routine, the Olympian sprinter holds her pose, right hand high up, a smile on her face. A black glove covers her fist. Judges Madhuri Dixit and Karan Johar break into applause. (More Sports News)
But even on a fun and games show, Dutee’s black glove triggers the memory of a serious episode in sports history - Tommie Smith and John Carlos of the US at the 1968 Olympics, wearing black gloves and raising their hands on the podium. Both were black, and making a statement about human rights and race matters.
Dutee, too, has gone beyond her sport and has come to symbolize many things – triumphing over poverty, fighting for the rights of women athletes with high testosterone and the right to same-sex relationships.
The 26-year-old was born poor in Orissa’s Jajpur district. There were nine members in the family, and they subsisted on rice gruel and vegetables. Then, she was banned from women’s athletics by the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) in 2014 for having excess testosterone (hyperandrogenism). Dutee, refusing to go down without a fight, appealed to the CAS (Court of Arbitration for Sports), precipitated a change in the rules and earned back her right to run.
In her personal life, Dutee is in a same-sex relationship, and has frequently faced condemnation or cold shoulders due to her choice. Her sister Saraswati inspired her to take up running. But when she learnt of Dutee’s sexuality, their relations soured.
As the National Games, where she is participating, approach, and as LGBTQ matters continue to be debated in the country, Outlook asked Dutee what gives her the strength to fight so many fires.
“The need to put the truth out in front of the world, that drives me,” Dutee said. “There was one situation after another in my life. I had to face them. As an athlete, I had done nothing wrong and was being defamed. They said I was a male competing with females. You don’t discriminate between athletes on the basis of their height or figure, why do you discriminate on the basis of testosterone? It is a natural condition.”
When Dutee was barred from competition in 2014, everyone around her told her to accept the decision and move on.
She says, “Sabne pehle kaha ki, ‘Dutee, aisa rule hai. Jo hua woh hua, tum ghar aa jao. (Everyone told me, ‘Look Dutee, these are the rules. Let bygones be and come home’) But I wanted to do something about it, as I had not done anything wrong.”
Payoshni Mitra, an athlete rights activist, came into the picture. She advised Dutee to take the legal route. Dutee acknowledges the role Mitra played in her case, as well as the help extended by the government to cover legal costs.
“Payoshni Ma’am told me to fight, that this rule (hyperandrogenism) was ruining many athletic careers,” says Dutee. “I also got support for the financial expense of the case from the state government and the Indian government.”
Winning the case meant a lot to Dutee and to women’s athletics, as it reduced the prevailing “bhedbhav” (discrimination) against women with high testosterone.
“The rule was unjust,” Dutee says. “By winning the case, I got my career back, and so did a few others. Some of the fear has gone from among athletes [about the hyperandrogenism rule].”
Dutee, a winner of silver medals in the 100m and 200m at the 2018 Asian Games, found freedom on the track again. However, life remained complicated due to her sexual orientation.
Asked how her relationship with her sister was now, Dutee said, “Please don’t ask me about my sister. But things are fine between me and the rest of my family. Also, there is far greater acceptance of same-sex relationships now. The young generation, which couldn’t speak up all these days, they are now freer.”
Jhalak Dikhla Jaa, she says, came about due to a combination of factors. One, the hosts asked her. Two, the 2022 Asian Games got postponed to next year, and in the window between the Commonwealth Games and National Games, she could make some time.
“Even athletes need some entertainment,” Dutee said. “Before me, Bhaichung Bhutia had done the show. So when they asked, and when I had some time, I thought, why not?”
There is moment of banter between Dutee and Dixit on the show. At one point, Dutee says, “Mann me socha tha mai to inki (Madhuri) tarah dance nahi kar paoongi. (I thought I won’t be able to dance like Madhuri).”
Dixit, without missing a beat, said, “Aur mai aapki tarah daud nahi paoongi kabhi.” (And I won’t ever be able to run like you).
Yes, Dutee runs fast. And she fights.
“Duniya sangharsh hai (the world is a challenging place),” she says when asked what advice she’d give people facing situations similar to those she did. “If you don’t fight, people will walk all over you. Himmat nahi harna (don’t lose courage).”