Dutee Chand: I have found life and can run without fear now

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Four years, Dutee Chand will vouch, is a long time.

She went, during that period, from being a promising teenager on the cusp of a sparkling Commonwealth Games debut to finding herself in the bottomless pit of a gender debate. Humiliated and accosted for how her body was made up. But on Thursday, after the IAAF put forth a revised version of its suspended regulation on female classification, Dutee finally found closure.

"I can't put it in words... what and how much I've been through these past few years," the sprinter told ESPN from Hyderabad. "I lost friends and relatives distanced themselves from me. Now, finally, I can smile. Now, I can run without fear."

Currently undergoing rehabilitation and training in Hyderabad following a hamstring injury, Dutee will next compete at the inter-state Nationals in June, which will act as qualifier to the Asian Games in August.

Scheduled to be implemented from November this year, the reworked IAAF regulations will affect those female athletes with naturally occurring high testosterone levels who compete over distances between 400m and a mile. This puts Dutee, who competes in the 100m and 200m sprints, in the safe zone.

"I have lived through this," says Dutee. "Case jeetne ke baad sabhi ne mujhse kahan: Dutee tu ladki nahi hai, Dutee tu ladki nahi hai (After I won the case, everyone told me: Dutee, you're not a girl). I've been brought up and lived like a girl, so suddenly all this talk broke me down. I couldn't focus on preparation for events for the past four years, not even the Olympics, because of all the mental agony."

Life at the national camp in Patiala grew difficult for Dutee after she was pitchforked into the heart of gender debate. But she found a welcoming home at the Pullela Gopichand Academy in Hyderabad. Since there were no female athletes to train with, she began training with male athletes. The phase taught her to trust little, believe more and stand her ground, she says. It also moved her to do the thing she hadn't up until four years ago.

"As a child, I used to laugh when my mother spanked me. No matter what she did, she could never get me to cry. But after the tests and all the media attention in 2014, I broke down. Not because of the humiliation, but because I thought my career was over."

According to the IAAF, the limit for circulating testosterone in the fresh regulation has been reduced from 10 nanomoles per litre to five to protect the level-playing field in the female classification. This is a fresh attempt by the world body to put in place regulations for female athletes with naturally occurring high levels of testosterone that were suspended in 2015 by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in a historic decision following Dutee's appeal. The Odisha girl was the first athlete to challenge the ruling and CAS sided with her, overturned her ban and handed the IAAF a two-year ultimatum to produce scientific evidence that links competitive advantage to naturally occurring high levels of testosterone.

In its release explaining the latest regulation, Dr Stéphane Bermon from the IAAF's medical and science department says: "We have seen in a decade and more of research that 7.1 in every 1000 elite female athletes in our sport have elevated testosterone levels, the majority are in the restricted events covered by these regulations. This is around 140 times what you will find in the general female population which demonstrates to us in statistical terms a recruitment bias. The treatment to reduce testosterone levels is a hormone supplement. No athlete will be forced to undergo surgery. It is the athlete's responsibility, in close consultation with her medical team, to decide on her treatment."

There is no clarity on whether the IAAF was able to find scientific evidence proving competitive advantage of female athletes with high levels of testosterone.

The new regulations will hit the likes of Caster Semenya -- fresh from her 800m and 1500m wins at the recent Commonwealth Games -- the most. "I feel bad for her," Dutee says. "She's such a talented athlete. I have emailed her saying that she can take the help of my legal team. I just want to help her in any way I can. I know the pain."

South Africa's ruling party, the African National Congress, has also hit out at the IAAF, alleging blatant racism and saying the new regulations are targeted at Semenya.

Dutee, meanwhile, says this is the first time that she can focus on a competition (the 2018 Asian Games) without having to worry about being pulled out or being barred from competing at the last minute.

"I would worry that one morning I would wake up and be told that I can't compete any more. Now, I've found life. Now, I've found meaning."

In an unusual situation around the case, the IAAF has not backed the findings of a study commissioned by it into the matter which was published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in July 2017. According to the research, led by two French scientists, testosterone levels were found to make a difference though not confirmed as competitive advantage in five events. The biggest differences were found to be in the hammer throw (4.53 per cent) and pole vault (2.94 per cent), and the smaller ones were in the 400m hurdles (2.78 per cent), 400m (2.73 per cent) and 800m (1.78 per cent). Yet the revised stipulations make no mention of either pole vault or hammer throw, while 1500m -- against which there is no evidence of a competitive advantage -- has been brought under the purview of the new regulation.