When she ran the race of her life in Jakarta on Sunday night, Dutee Chand sent everything else around these Asian Games floating up into the ether. Medals that had been won, medals that had slipped away, chances grabbed, opportunities blown, gold, silver, bronze, fourth place or nowhere, found themselves suspended between record and memory.
It is what the 100m sprint is and what it does. An athletic event of primal force that in its instant aftermath blurs the rest around it into pastel recollection. Even before the results of the photo finish confirmed silver by 0.02 seconds, Dutee's race became a magic marker for Indian athletics in the 21st century.
India's pet event on the track, loaded with reverence, tradition and success, is the quarter-mile. Individual and relay, 400m, 4x400m, men and women, flat or hurdles, Milkha and Usha. We never think of the 100m as our thing; there are generations of Indians who do not remember our athletes featuring in the race itself with distinction. PT Usha's two individual 100m Asian Games silvers came in the 1980s (1982, 1986). The last time India won anything in an Asian Games 100m race was 1998, with Rachita Mistry's bronze. On Sunday night, Dutee changed all that.
We watched her, this tiny, 5ft tall, tightly-muscled Indian woman, towered over by her competitors with their far longer strides, hurl herself out of the blocks and fling her entire body and soul onto the track. Dutee was fifth fastest in the heats, running in Lane 7, her reaction time onto the race at the modest centre of the field. From some angles on television, it looked like she was leading. From others, it looked like she trailed. On the far side of Bahraini Edidiong Odiong and the Chinese Yonglei Wei, we worried Dutee could be blown off in the wake of their power and the fading of her energies.
Yet the figure in the bright blue vest never faded. Just like she herself had refused to do, in the last four harrowing years of her life. Dutee's body had formed the heart of a contentious, ugly international debate over who decides how much womanliness is needed to certify a woman athlete as eligible to compete with her peers. In 2014, Dutee had been ostracised by the athletic establishment, banned from competing and then, with support from the government and legal activists, had become the face of the battle for the rights of women athletes in the hypoandrogenism debate. On Sunday night, we saw her as she has always wanted the world to see her: Dutee Chand, sprinter from India. Daughter of a family of Orissa weavers, she spun out her story the way she wanted it remembered.
The 100m finishes quickly, but when the mind is riveted to it, it plays itself out at a crawl. In the last 20-odd metres, with the commentators hollering her name out as "Shand", our lungs running out of breath because we forget to exhale, Dutee pushed more. She matched the bloody-minded intent of the pack around her, keeping the others tighly reeled in with speed, gathering strength the like waves do before crashing onto their destination, both shore and finish line. When she crossed over, we weren't sure. She wasn't sure either, disbelieving, waiting for the official time to show up as Odiong celebrated. Her face was shining, aware that she had been part of something magical, mystical even.
The photo finish has her head dipped, she is leaning forward, Odidong's knee tipping that, 0.02 second ahead, Wei a red patch clearly behind. The time, 11.32, which wins silver is not her personal best (11.24) but it doesn't matter. Track and field medals at the Asian Games carry a weight of their own, the 100m even more so. Dutee Chand's race and how she ran it will forever be always marked by its unique stardust.
As a sports journalist for donkeys, Dutee's race was that rare kind of sporting event where the rational minds rests itself and lets instincts take over. I watched at home with my father and we found ourselves shouting. Not for a win or a medal or anything but for this remarkable, bullet-like girl and her gut-buster of a race.
Go, Dutee, go. To the line, the line.