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Caster, Dutee and the obstacle race of their lives

Dutee Chand and Caster Semenya couldn't be more miles apart.

Yes, they are both track athletes, but one is a 1.5m-tall middle-distance trail-blitzer and the other a 1.78m tall national 100m champion. Chand is from Chakagopalpur in India, while Semenya is from Potchefstroom in South Africa - an 8,082 km distance that would defeat even Google Maps.

Yet these two women share one thing. Their bodies are at the frontlines of a simmering and freshly stirred debate between competitive sport and what constitutes gender identity. Semenya and Chand's careers stand on the blurred boundaries between biological, anatomical, physiological and social definitions of what marks the separation between female and male in competitive sport.

In fighting for the right to compete, Semenya and Chand are 21st Century challengers of athletics and Olympic sport's gender-centric rules that have been rewritten over decades. Version 2011 of these rules - pertaining to higher than normal testosterone readings and hyperandrogenism - sought to establish a cast-iron biological fingerprint for female athletes and offered to engineer a solution for this gender-identity issue through unproven medical intervention.

And their appearances at the Rio Olympics will once again amplify to the larger sporting world as their bodies refuse to fit conventional definitions of the female body - conventions that are tied in with some science and much social conditioning.

So if you want to get your head around the story of Caster Semenya, you must listen to the story of Dutee Chand. And then the other way around.

CASTER'S STORY

Semenya's past and present seem to occupy wider attention, and she has been making headlines again with her audacious resurgence over the past 12 months. In 2016, the South African has eaten up acres of track and timings in the 800m, an aerobic-anaerobic balancing act, the bruiser of middle-distance races.

On July 15 - a little over a month before her first round in Rio - Semenya ran the event in 1:55.33 at the IAAF Diamond League meet in Monaco, the season's fastest time. It broke her own South African national record, which had held for seven tumultuous years, and marked her fourth straight win in the Diamond League season.

Before that race, Semenya had gone under 1:56 only once -- in her breakout 800 (1:55.45) as an unknown teenager at the 2009 Berlin World Championships. The event changed her life and was far from a celebration; it launched her as a figure of public debate.

Now, after living in relative anonymity since winning a silver medal in the 2012 London Olympics, Semenya's return to the Olympics and recent success has brought the ghouls looking over her shoulders again - raising doubts over her gender that originate from her physical appearance.

Described as "the most divisive athlete of the year" (Sydney Morning Herald) and "athletics' next ticking time bomb," (The Times, London but reprinted in The Australian), Semenya's potential success in Rio is being turned into a red alert requiring a re-examination of as it appears, the very ethos of competitive sport.

Women's marathon record-holder Paula Radcliffe told the BBC, "When we talk about it in terms of fully expecting no other result than Caster Semenya to win that 800m, then it's no longer sport." It sounds like pretty epochal, tipping-point stuff except for the fact that the definition of sport being addressed here is fairly amorphous. Well before female testosterone levels, doping in itself should have made capital-lettered Sport no longer Sport.

Radcliffe was quick to add that Semenya "should not be called out on this the whole time. She has done nothing wrong and the way her case was dealt with originally by the IAAF (athletics' international governing body) wasn't fair. It's is not just Caster's rights but all the women with elevated testosterone that need to be balanced with those that don't."

Speaking on a BBC Radio 5Live podcast recently, British swimming Olympic medalist Stephen Parry said the discussion around Semenya had "something voyeuristic" about it "because it is about gender."

"Can we not celebrate the fact that maybe she is a strong woman?," he said. "We don't exclude others because they have physiology that suits their sport." The world, he reminded everyone, "celebrated" Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe's large size-17 feet, which "made him a a much better swimmer, but he was not excluded."

Parry added that there was a danger in "just focusing on just one measure of physiology. We've highlighted testosterone but that is only one element of everyone's physiology."

"Can we not celebrate the fact that maybe she is a strong woman? We don't exclude others because they have physiology that suits their sport."

As female participation and progression across competitive sport has accelerated, so too has the attempt to clearly define what in a female body could possibly constitute a distinct "unfair" advantage-bearing genetic male marker. After the first "gender" test on women athletes was officially conducted in 1950, the always-contentious science was to move from humiliating physical examination to chromosome testing in 1968. After "gender-verification" was discontinued at the Olympic Games in 1999, Semenya's astonishing debut at the 2009 World Championships led to another version of the "gender verification test" being carried by South African athletics authorities, putting the athlete's career into deep freeze for 11 months. In April 2011, the IAAF's "hyperandrogenism" ruling came into play.

Semenya was directly targeted by her competitors in 2009 - Italy's Elisa Cusma, who finished sixth in Berlin, said, "She's a man." Commentators today ask that Semenya not be singled out as the totem for the (yet unproven) unfair advantage available to athletes with DSD (disorders of sexual development). Yet that particular runaway train has already left the station: the hyperandrogenism ruling was only put into place after her Semenya's 2009 success. Now, she must also contend with the cruel, judgmental beast that is social media. It is what shapes public opinion and builds consensus, turning the possibility of a Semenya gold in Rio into a threat to the hallowed entity called "Sport."

DUTEE'S STORY

Dutee Chand is the third of seven siblings born to a family of weavers in the village of Chakagopalpur. The Brahmani River runs alongside the village 90 minutes north of the state capital Bhubaneshwar, the same distance east of the shoreline and the Bay of Bengal. Her older sister, Saraswati, a state-level sprinter herself, had lifted the family out of economic hardship after being hired by the state police. Dutee trained alongside her sister and ran along the river, but she flew higher and further in the sport. An under-18 national champion in 2012, she won the 200 at the 2013 Asian Championships and, at 17, she was a senior national champion in the 100 and 200.

She was preparing for the World Junior Championships in Oregon in June 2014 when she was asked by Athletics Federation of India to stop over in Delhi for routine tests. Fresh off gold medals in the Asian Junior Athletics Championships in Patiala, her aim was to line herself up for a spot on the Indian team for the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games.

The test request was unusual by nature - no blood or urine, but an ultrasound. After a planned move to Bangalore, she was sent another round of tests. This time, it was a far more detailed round of tests at a private hospital: blood tests, MRI, a gynecological examination, an ultrasound, as well as a karyotyping procedure, which allows a doctor extract cell samples to examine a patient's chromosome patterns.

A few days later, she was told she was ineligible for participation in Oregon and Glasgow. No reasons were given. She returned home crushed and confused before being hit with the knowledge that she had undergone a gender test and she failed it. She found out through the media that her body produced more testosterone than the normal levels found in women.

"I did not even know what the tests were all about," Chand was to say in an interview to ESPN. "What saddened me were not the tests itself but being told that I couldn't compete."

"Emotionally, I think I'm pretty strong... One of the things that very few people know about me is that my never cry," she adds. "I may be crying a river inside, but I would have a smile on my face. What left me broken was knowing that all the hard work I had put in, all the hours of training from dawn to dusk and the money spent on my preparations had been wasted."

She said, "I don't feel sad because I'm different from other girls in a certain way because I feel God does everything for a good reason. He gave me an opportunity to do something for my country and earn a name for myself so early in my life."

"What saddened me were not the tests itself but being told that I couldn't compete."

If you read through Chand's CAS case, the Athletics Federation of India's vocabulary over its rationale of putting her through the gender tests, is bewildering and brief. The AFI informed the Sports Authority of India, (SAI) - an umbrella body charged with the overall administration of Indian sport - that there were "definite doubts regarding the gender" of Chand. The letter goes on to say that those "doubts" had also been "expressed by the Asian Athletics Association regarding her gender issue."

Despite those "definite doubts" being undefined and lacking detail, the AFI requested the SAI to perform a gender verification test. Whether it was a mere gender test (as pertaining to excess androgen in the female body), or a blanket gender verification test (which had been banned by the IOC and the IAAF because of the invasive examinations) was treated as immaterial.

The test results were puzzling, and brought with them humiliation. Chand had grown up in a village, part of a community who knew nothing of gender tests, testosterone, androgens. They only knew the little girl who could run through their lanes faster than anyone they had seen before. Chand says, "My parents, they are simple, God-fearing people. I'm not sure that they even understood the full extent of what transpired."

The original "definite doubt" complaint, she believed, could have come from envious rivals or their coaches. "A few athletes who were probably jealous of my performances complained to the AFI, following which the tests were conducted. I don't blame the AFI. They were just playing by the rules. But I was really hurt by the manner in which I was trapped."

But Chand's belief in her identity as an athlete could not be silenced. She was told that if she underwent "treatment" for her "condition," she would be fine. But the "treatment" and "medicines" could steal her chance to succeed at competitive sport. "I thought to myself that sport is the reason people know me," she says. "It's my dream and passion and I cannot abandon it. Even if that means I have to fight the system on my own, I won't quit."

The "system"- be it Indian sporting federations or the government - has in the past been insensitive to individual athlete's concerns. In a contest between the status quo and the athlete as underdog, Indian sports administration rarely fights for the underdog. Chand understands the AFI itself couldn't have fought on her behalf, but says a little sympathy never hurt. "I requested an AFI official to allow me to compete since whatever the issue was not due to fault but he turned me away. That was when we decided to challenge the ruling."

It became a multi-pronged campaign, unprecedented inĀ¬ Indian sport, involving an entire cast of characters across nations. Leading the charge was the head of SAI, Jiji Thomson who had helped rescue Asian Games 800m silver medallist Santhi Sounderrajan out of a post-athletics life as a manual labourer. He convinced the Indian sports ministry to foot the bills in taking the case to the CAS and the importance of challenging the hyperandrogenism ruling.

Sports gender studies researcher Dr. Payoshni Mitra had first alerted Thomson about Sounderrajan, and once again, put up her hand up for Dutee. She contacted a global team of scholars and lawyers who wanted to contest the IAAF ruling on Chand's behalf. Along with Dutee's Indian team, a multi-national task force fought for her -- American medical anthropologist Katrina Karkazis, Bruce Kidd, a former Canadian Olympian and sports gender equality activist, and Canadian sports lawyer Jim Bunting, whose firm worked pro-bono on the case. When the news about going to the CAS emerged, Chand says the AFI official she had gone to for help "mocked me before we left saying I would never win."

On July 24, 2015, CAS announced a decision that struck a hammer blow for activists of gender equality in sport and shook world athletics. It suspended the Hyperandrogenism Regulations "for a maximum period of two years in order to give the IAAF the opportunity to provide the CAS with scientific evidence about the quantitative relationship between enhanced testosterone levels and improved athletic performance in hyperandrogenic athletes."

Chand was free to run again. On August 12, she finished seventh in her heat at the Rio Olympics and 50th in the field of 64 runners in the 100m.

CASTER & DUTEE

In Rio, there was no chance of Semenya and Chand sharing a track, but they may have run into each other in the dining hall. "I have never met her but would love to," Chand says. Then, she adds with a laugh, "More than questions, I think people will be curious to know who among the two of us is stronger."

Over the last two years, Semenya has been in self-imposed exile at university, while Chand has been undaunted by a spotlight that in the past has stripped away the soul of more than a few women athletes in India. She realizes that while her CAS case was an individual matter, she was also fighting on behalf of wider group of female athletes with DSD. Like Semenya and others, Chand is trapped in a twilight zone between individual identity and the body's own politics.

In Rio, Chand believes the treatment that is meted out to her and Semenya could carry many mixed messages: "I know some people may be applauding us, but deep down, revile us, hate our guts."

Yes, many heavyweights still remained lined up against Semenya and Chand, regardless of the far more genteel "Let's not single out Caster, but" vocabulary used in the current argument. In the run-up to Rio, new IAAF president Sebastian Coe told The Times, London: "We are talking people, not robots or machines here, and I don't want it to descend into an insensitive approach. The decision taken by CAS was, to most of us in our sport, slightly surprising. We have until July next year to appeal that decision and will have formed a view well before then."

Two months before the CAS ruling, Semenya told BBC, "I don't want to be someone I don't want to be. I don't want to be someone people want me to be. I just want to be me. I was born like this. I don't want any changes."

It has never been formally confirmed, but is merely implied or assumed that the condition under which Semenya was allowed to compete again was that she undergo the IAAF's recommended testosterone-suppressing medication, medical and psychological after-effects. Her successes over the past six months are being linked to the fact that post the award in Chand's CAS case, she has gone off the testosterone-suppressing medication and therefore regained her previous advantage.

Dr Ross Tucker, a well-respected South African sports scientist and advocate of the hyperandrogenism rule, told The Guardian newspaper, "She is proof of the benefit of testosterone to intersex athletes... Having had the restriction removed she is now about six seconds faster than she had been the last two years." The "restriction" removal here refers to the limit of the amount of testosterone deemed suitable for female athletes to compete (serum testosterone levels below 10 nmol/L, or nanomoles per litre).

"I know some people may be applauding us, but deep down, revile us, hate our guts."

In response, Mitra, official mediator for Chand in the CAS appeal, told ESPN that Semenya's "mediated settlement" with the IAAF has always been "confidential." She says, "commentators do not and cannot know whether her testosterone levels are any higher now than they were one year ago."

Semenya's timings over the past four years - from silver in London, to failing to make the finals at the 2015 Beijing World Championships and the sub 1:56 in Monaco -- could also have arisen from a combination of factors far removed from CAS rulings. A dislocation of her knee and the struggles following the injury, a tough emotional phase of her life leading to insufficient training, followed by her October 2014 move to Potchefstroom under respected coach Jean Verster.

Semenya's history as the global face - and body - of unfair advantage in female sport, has thrown up an alternative but unverified version of events -- which through consistent repetition is being treated as the truth, the whole truth and nothing but. "I can't stop running because of people," Semenya said to the BBC last year. "If you have a problem with it, come straight to me and tell me. I cannot stop because people say no she looks like a man this and that. It's their problem, not mine."

Chand's return to the track has generated far less noise. She has remained the athlete she always was - India's fastest sprinter. Less than two months following the CAS ruling, she won the 100 at the National Open Athletics Championships in Salt Lake, Calcutta, her first race in more than 12 months. "All those who tried to oust me from the sport have realised that I'm not someone who will give up without a fight. My comeback has certainly left them shaken. The entire episode has made me stronger." she told ESPN.

In June, Chand became the second Indian to qualify for an Olympic 100m event since the qualification rules came into play since 2000, only the sixth Indian woman to get to the most glamourous event in track and field. She has broken the national record twice en route to Rio and the consequences of her determination to get there are considerable.

Chand says, "I have fewer friends now. Most of my relatives distanced themselves from me. Earlier, everyone used to like me, now the same people avoid me. I used to hang out with friends earlier on now I'm scared to ask them to meet me since parents don't want their daughters to be with me.

"Previously, when I visited places with a female friend, people would ask, 'Is she your friend?' now if they see me with a girl they ask, 'Is she your girlfriend?' Perceptions have changed."

What also worries Chand today is whether the CAS ruling could be overturned in 2017. "Deep down, I'm confused and uncertain about my future in the sport. If the rules are reinstated after the two-year period lapses, I may have to go to court all over again." The repercussions of the return to the ruling, she says, will be more than merely a strike down of her own career. "Whenever there's a move to change things for the better, there will always be people who oppose it. I'm hoping such a thing won't happen. If it does, I'm not sure about the repercussions on the sport, but for athletes like it me it will be a huge blow."

She is talking about her sport, athletics and her country India. Where track athletes usually come from families with extremely limited resources and sport is considered by their young as a way out of a life of economic struggle. "If you look into the past of most athletes, you will possibly find want and poverty," Chand says. Her reason for taking up sport were the simplest: "A first-place in school competitions meant pencils, tiffin boxes and books as prize. We did not have money to buy them so I started running to win them. The most you can get out of athletics is a name for yourself."

Sport gives girls from economically-deprived homes and conservative communities, their first freedoms. Chand stands at the other end of the spectrum that bothers athletes like Radcliffe and Coe. Chand says, "If those rules are back, athletes will lose faith and families will be reluctant to allow their girls take up the sport, since fear will set in." A playing field which is far from level to start with, Chand says, will distance itself from its least resourced.

"So, world will make that girl into a boy, but in her own eyes, she can't become a boy, can she?"

Chand's response to the solution of putting female athletes with hyperandrogenism into the male competition lies between disbelief and derision, "We are struggling to qualify and win a medal among women at the Olympics, how would we compete with guys? Duniya ke liye toh who ladka ban jayega, lekin khud ke liye toh woh ladka nahi ban sakta. (Okay, so world will make that girl into a boy, but in her own eyes, she can't become a boy, can she?)

The idea that, along with Semenya, she could help push back against doomsday scenario being raised and rather promote greater gender equality in sport interests Chand. "Why not? Hopefully, we get a chance to meet and talk about it. My knowledge of English isn't too good but maybe I could have someone convey my thoughts to her and hers to me."

Girl-talk about being a different kind of girl.

Chand said the CAS ruling worked "for many other athletes like me around the world. The wrong thought process behind the rule was brought to light. If the rule is done away with for good if would help so many athletes."

Semenya and Chand might well occupy two parallel sporting universes but today they are rendered inseparable, their lives and histories tied together.

Consider these words - "Everyone has an equal right to live in this world and it's not fair to expect that each of us will be alike." It doesn't matter who said it.

Caster and Dutee would both agree.