Santhi Soundarajan

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Santhi Soundarajan
Personal information
Nationality Indian
Born (1981-03-01) 1 March 1981 (age 33)
Kathakkurichi, Pudukkottai District,(Sri Lankan Tamilian)
Residence Kathakkurichi, Pudukkottai District
Alma mater Sports Authority of India(SAI),Bangalore
Height 1.70 metres (5 ft 7 in)
Weight 64 kilograms (141 lb)
Sport Running
Event(s) 800 metres, 1500 metres
Achievements and titles
Personal best(s) 800m: 1:55.45
1500m: 5:08.01
National record 3000m: 10:44.65
World Peace Sports Festival Ambassador -2003, Korea

Santhi Soundarajan (also spelled Shanthi Soundararajan, born April 1981) is an Indian athlete winner of 11 international medals for India and around 50 medals for her home state Tamil Nadu. Santhi competes in the middle distance track events. She was stripped off a silver medal won at the 2006 Asian Games after failing a gender verification test, disputing her eligibility to participate in the women's competition.

Early life and career[edit]

Santhi Soundarajan was born in 1981 in the village of Kathakkurichi in Pudukkottai District of Tamil Nadu, India.

Soundarajan is from the lowest caste in India, the Dalits, who were previously known as the untouchables. Sports offered a chance out of the life of backbreaking labor and desperate poverty that she was raised in, and she ran as if her life depended on it, breaking national records and winning hundreds of medals. Santhi grew up in a 20-by-5 hut across the road from the new home she lives in now. There was no bathroom or outhouse, no running water or electricity. Her mother and father had to go to another town to work in a brickyard, where they earned the equivalent of $4 a week. While they were gone, Santhi, the oldest, was in charge of taking care of her four siblings. Sometimes, Soundarajan's grandfather, an accomplished runner, helped while her parents were away. When she was 13, he taught her to run on an open stretch of dirt outside the hut and bought her a pair of shoes. He is Santhi's biggest supporter.

At her first competition, in eighth grade, Soundarajan won a tin cup; she collected 13 more at interschool competitions. The sports coach at a nearby high school took note of her dominating performances and recruited her. The school paid her tuition and provided her with a uniform and hot lunches. It was the first time Soundarajan had ever eaten three meals a day. She was very hardworking and brought a lot of fame to the school.

After high school, Soundarajan got a scholarship from a Arts college in Pudukkottai, the nearest town. But she had no interest in her studies. She lived to run, waking up at 4 every morning and staying in her track clothes all day. When her body felt as if it would give out, Soundarajan thought of one thing: how every Diwali—the year's biggest Hindu festival, when most kids get new clothes and eat sweets—she and her siblings wore their school uniforms, as they did every day, and ate rice cakes with chutney, the equivalent of bread and jam.

The following year, Soundarajan transferred to a college in Chennai, her state's capital, seven hours away. With high-level coaching, she began to break national records. So in 2005, she boarded an airplane for the first time to attend the Asian Athletics Championships in South Korea, where she won a silver medal. In 2006, she was chosen to represent India at the Asian Games (run by the Olympic Council of Asia). In the 800 meters, Soundarajan took the silver in 2 minutes, 3.16 seconds, beating Viktoriya Yalovtseva of Kazakhstan by 0.03. After the race, she lay on the track in disbelief. The Indian press reported the win, triumphantly noting how unlikely it was given Soundarajan's origins. "The biggest thing was to win the Asian Games." At age 25, she found herself in Doha, Qatar, at the Asian Games, the second-largest multisport event in the world after the Olympics. Competing against athletes from 45 countries, she won a silver medal—the realization of a lifelong goal. But she enjoyed this triumph for barely a moment before her career was over. Not because of injury or doping. Her body betrayed her in another way: She failed a gender test.

In that instant in 2006, Soundarajan inadvertently became embroiled in an ongoing, unresolved and frequently embarrassing debate over what makes an athlete female enough to compete as a woman.[1]

Soundarajan holds the national record for the women’s 3000 metres steeplechase clocking 10:44.65 seconds. At a national meet in Bangalore in July 2005 she won the 800m, 1,500m and 3000m. She won the silver medal in 800 m at the Asian Championships in Incheon, South Korea in 2005.

Asian Games controversy[edit]

Soundarajan won a silver medal in the women's 800m race at the 2006 Asian Games held in Doha, Qatar in December 2006 clocking 2 minutes, 3.16 seconds. [2] However, she underwent a sex test shortly afterwards, and the results indicated that she "does not possess the sexual characteristics of a woman".[3] Soon after the results of the sex test came out, she was stripped of her silver medal.[4]

"I am treated as an outcast and am unable to even go out of my house and I was shunned by my own local community after being stripped of silver medal and I was banned from competing by the Indian Olympic Association.I come from a small village and had no one to fight for me, I feel it is unfair to detriment the quality of people based on chromosomes. I feel it is unethical and biased.It was a very bitter and humiliating experience for me and my family.Sports federations should come up with a solution to this, rather than ostracising somebody."[5][6][7]

— Santhi Soundarajan after stripped of from Asian Games 2006

The day after her triumph, the Indian Athletic Federations team doctor, Kumar Mendiratta, asked her to come in for tests, although she says he didn't say what they were for. According to Soundarajan, the doctor took blood, then had her undress. He brought in four doctors—the IAAF has a panel of medical experts, which usually includes a gynecologist and endocrinologist—and left the room. Soundarajan says the doctors, none of whom spoke Tamil, her native language, examined her for 30 minutes. The next day she was told to leave the Games, without explanation.

Soundarajan learned the reason for her dismissal at the same moment the rest of India did—on the evening news a few days later. She watched incredulously as it was announced that she had been stripped of her medal because she was not really a woman. According to Mendiratta, Soundarajan was brought in for a gender test after the chaperone for the doping test "noticed something unusual" when Soundarajan was urinating. He says everything was explained to her in English—a language she speaks, albeit not fluently.

Media articles later reported that Santhi might have been born with an intersexed condition known as Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS).[8][9][10] Those affected have a Y chromosome and are genetically male, even though they have external female genitalia. The news blindsided Soundarajan. She had a deep voice and a flat chest; she had never menstruated but knew that was not uncommon for female runners. Five days after the news report, Soundarajan says, she received a call from Lalit Bhanot, a joint secretary of the Indian Olympic Association. Bhanot spoke to Soundarajan in English. "He told Santhi can't do sports anymore,'. When she asked why, she was told: It's been confirmed, Santhi cannot compete in sports." (When asked recently about what he told Soundarajan during the call, Bhanot replied: "How can I remember? Whatever instructions I was given by the IAAF was what I did." He says Soundarajan was notified about her test results, although "whether it was by fax, post or mail, I cannot say." The IAAF could not be reached.) As Soundarajan recounts the conversation, she pauses and adds, softly, "And that was the end of my sports life."

Soundarajan returned to her village in humiliation and promptly fell into serious depression. Months later, she tried to kill herself by ingesting a type of poison used by veterinarians. A friend found her vomiting uncontrollably and brought her to a hospital. "Everyone looked down on me," she says. "Everyone was looking at me in this new way: Is she a man? Is she a transvestite? It's very hurtful. It ruined my life and my family's life."[11][12]

While such sex tests are not compulsory for competitors, the International Association of Athletics Federations can request that contenders take such tests at any time, and include intensive evaluation by a gynecologist, a geneticist, an endocrinologist, a psychologist, and an internal medicine specialist. According to her coach, P. Nagarajan, her upbringing in impoverished rural India, where she reportedly only started eating proper meals in 2004, could be a reason behind the test result.[13]

Santhi Soundarajan support to Caster Semenya[edit]

Though there was much outrage and anger amongst the sporting fraternity over the callous attitude of the sports mandarins while dealing with “gender issues” and the society in general that treats its out-of-favour sporting heroes with disdain and disregard, nothing came of it. Contrast this with Caster Semenya of South Africa, also a middle-distance runner, who lost the gold she won in Berlin World Championship 2009 after she failed a similar gender test. But her nation rallied around her to safeguard her dignity, her rights and position in world sports. She was also her country’s flag-bearer at the London Olympics 2012.

Santhi Soundarajan supported Caster Semenya the South African track star whose gender has sparked an international athletics. Santhi feared that Semenya will face the same "humiliation" that she did if the South African fails a gender test[14][15]

"Semenya should not abandon the fight.I hope Semenya will come out of this better than I did.But it's not too late for Semenya. She should not let them take away her medal, or allow one test to determine her fate. "She is a woman and that's it, full stop,A gender test cannot take away from you who you are."[7]

— Santhi Soundarajan to Caster Semenya in her interview with TIME & BBC

Later life[edit]

In January 2007, The Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Karunanidhi had awarded Santhi a television set and a cash prize of Rs. 1.5 million for her Doha Games effort in this year, despite the news of Santhi failing a gender test.

In September 2007, Soundarajan was reported to have attempted suicide, reportedly by consuming a veterinary drug at her residence.[10] The attempt was blamed on gender, economic, and sports pressure in India. Two months later, Soundarajan took up coaching, starting a training academy at her home district of Pudukkottai, and became an athletics coach with the regional government. By 2009, her academy had 68 students and her students had won the first and third positions in the Chennai marathon.[16] As per reports Santhi Soundarajan worked as a daily-wager in a brick kiln and earns Rs 200 per day.[17][18]

In July 2012, the Union government stepped in to spread a protective arm around her.[19] She was admitted to the course in Bangalore on 2013 with the sports ministry funding her education. Santhi was one of the 24 coaches in athletics, out of the 108 students who attended the course in eight disciplines. Santhi Soundararajan's dream of becoming a qualified athletics coach came true on 30 April 2014 when she was awarded the NIS diploma certificate at the Sports Authority of India graduation ceremony in Bangalore.[20][21]

In Popular Culture[edit]

The Alan Turing Rainbow festival and The Asia's first Genderqueer pride parade by Srishti Madurai during July 2012 educated the college and high school students of Madurai in masses about Santhi Soundarajan and Intersex issues.[22]

A Documentary Y can’t I run? is a complete story of Santhi Soundarajan.[23]

The character of Valli in the Tamil film Ethir Neechal is a tribute to Santhi Soundarajan.[24][25]

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^ India strike it rich in track and field events, The Hindu, 9 December 2006
  3. ^ "Indian athlete fails gender test". BBC News. 18 December 2006. Retrieved 20 August 2009. 
  4. ^ "Indian silver medalist female runner at Asian Games fails gender test". International Herald Tribune. 18 December 2006. 
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ a b
  8. ^ Saner, Emine (30 July 2008). "The gender trap". The Guardian. Retrieved 20 August 2009. 
  9. ^ "The sad story of Santhi Soundarajan". The Times of India. 9 January 2007. Retrieved 20 August 2009. 
  10. ^ a b "Sex-test failure attempts suicide". Fox Sports. 6 September 2007. Retrieved 20 August 2009. 
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^ S. Sen (20 December 2006) "AFI to investigate Santhi case, uneven diet cited as possible reason" The Raw Story
  14. ^,8599,1919562,00.html
  15. ^
  16. ^ "Santhi turns to coaching after suicide attempt". Taipei Times. 11 June 2009. Retrieved 20 August 2009. 
  17. ^ "Asiad medallist labours at brick kiln". 24 July 2012. 
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^
  22. ^ "Cities / Madurai : Madurai comes out of the closet". The Hindu. 30 July 2012. Retrieved 10 October 2012. 
  23. ^
  24. ^
  25. ^