Santhi Soundarajan

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Santhi Soundarajan
Personal information
Nationality Indian
Born (1981-04-17) 17 April 1981 (age 35)
Kathakkurichi, Pudukkottai District
Residence Kathakkurichi, Pudukkottai District
Alma mater NIS, Sports Authority of India(SAI),Bangalore
Height 1.70 m (5 ft 7 in)
Weight 64 kg (141 lb)
Sport Running
Event(s) 800 metres, 1500 metres
Achievements and titles
Personal best(s) 800m: 1:55.45
1500m: 4:11.66
National record 3000m: 10:44.65
World Peace Sports Festival Ambassador -2003, Korea[1]

Santhi Soundarajan (also spelled Shanthi Soundararajan,Tamil: சாந்தி சௌந்திரராஜன், born April 1981) is an Indian track and field athlete. She is the winner of 11 international medals for India and around 50 medals for her home state Tamil Nadu. Soundarajan is the first Tamil woman to win a medal at the Asian Games.[2] She competes in the middle distance track events. She was stripped of 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.[3]

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. Soundarajan 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. She is one of five children of brick-kiln labourers in a rural village in southern Tamil Nadu state; she overcame malnutrition as a child to become a middle-distance runner. Her family could not even afford a television and watched Santhi's Doha race at a neighbour's house.[4] 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.

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 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.

After high school, Soundarajan got a scholarship from an Arts college in Pudukkottai, the nearest town. and the following year, Soundarajan transferred to a college in Chennai, the state's capital, seven hours away. In 2005, she attended 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. This win lead to Soundarajan becoming embroiled in an ongoing, unresolved debate over what makes an athlete female enough to compete as a woman.[5]

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 2005 Asian Championships in Incheon, South Korea.

Asian Games controversy[edit]

Soundarajan won a silver medal in the women's 800m race at the 2006 Asian Games held in Doha, Qatar clocking 2 minutes, 3.16 seconds. [6] However, she underwent a sex test shortly afterwards, and the results indicated that she "does not possess the sexual characteristics of a woman".[7] Soon after the results of the sex test came out, she was stripped of her silver medal.[8]

"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." [9][10][11]

— Santhi Soundarajan after being stripped of her silver medal from the 2006 Asian Games

Five days after the news report, Soundarajan says, she received a call from Lalit Bhanot, a former joint secretary of the Indian Olympic Association. Bhanot spoke to Soundarajan in English. "He told Santhi she 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."And that was the end of Santhi's sports life.[12][13][14] 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."[15][16]

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.[17]

Santhi Soundarajan support to Caster Semenya[edit]

"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."[18][19][20]

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

Though there was much outrage and anger amongst the sporting fraternity over the callous attitude of the sports administrators while dealing with “gender issues” and 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 nearly lost the gold she won at the 2009 Berlin World Championship 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 Semenya, the South African track star whose gender has sparked an international athletics controversy. Soundarajan feared that Semenya would face the same "humiliation" that she did if the South African failed a gender test.[19][20][21]

Santhi Soundarajan support to Dutee Chand[edit]

“They have tested Dutee at the last minute, humiliated her and broken her heart. All sorts of things have been written about her. Now, if she re-enters the sports field, things will not be normal. Even if she takes treatment, people will kill her with their suspicious gaze. The matter could have been dealt with discreetly. That things became public, is wrong. Would they have done it if it was their daughter?. Who is responsible for her future now? The job and the money are secondary problems. Think about how much she would have suffered. She is not from a wealthy or powerful family, just another ordinary family. Even if she gets help from the state association, can she stay in peace in her village? She will find it tough to get married. Dutee is not the problem but the system is problem, an athlete cannot fail their gender.”[22]

— Santhi Soundarajan about Dutee Chand

Soundarajan extended her support to Dutee and said the youngster should not be victimized. She also expressed her dismay at the lack of sensitivity in the handling of the Dutee Chand issue, fearing that the young athlete’s future may have now been jeopardized. Soundarajan demanded that all steps be taken to ensure the 18-year-old’s return to the track.[23]

In popular culture[edit]

In 2006, Amitabh Bachchan raised a question on Santhi in the show Kaun Banega Crorepati 2 he hosted.

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

The Alan Turing Rainbow Festival and Asia's first Genderqueer pride parade by Srishti Madurai during July 2012 featured Soundarajan's story.[26]

In 2006, ABC News reported that rising google searches on Santhi made her one of the most searched public figures on the Internet.[27]

Later life[edit]

In January 2007, the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Karunanidhi awarded Soundarajan a television set and a cash prize of Rs. 1.5 million for her Doha Games effort, despite the fallout of Soundarajan failing a gender test. Soundarajan spent her reward money on her students; there are an average of 68 (trainees) and none of them is charged any fee.[28]

Santhi's application to the state-run railways for a job before the games was turned down because the athlete failed a medical test.[4]

In September 2007, Soundarajan was reported to have attempted suicide, reportedly by consuming a veterinary drug at her residence.[14] 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 a temporary 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.[29] As per reports Santhi Soundarajan worked as a scavenger and daily-wager in a brick kiln and earns Rs 200 per day.[30][31]

Santhi was admitted to the NIS athletic coach diploma course in Bangalore in 2013.[32] Soundarajan 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.[33][34] Soundarajan doesn't have a permanent job now. Commenting on Soundarajan's situation, Olympic shooter Anjali Bhagwat, who termed the incident as "shameful," said “The athlete should be given at least a central or state government job for her financial stability, in lieu of what Santhi has done for the country,”.[35]

In December 2014, with the help of Gopi Shankar (a gender activist) and Vanathi Srinivasan (an advocate),[36] Santhi met Pon. Radhakrishnan, Minister of State for Road Transport and Highways, Olympic silver medallist Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, Minister of State for Information Technology and Broadcasting, and Union Sports and Youth Affairs Minister Sarbananda Sonowal in New Delhi to present her request. She urged the authorities to help her to get a permanent job as an athletics coach and to restore her 800m silver medal from the 2006 Doha Asian Games.[37]

Radhakrishnan, a political heavyweight from Tamil Nadu, in turn, wrote to Sports Minister Sarbananda Sonowal to release the cash award to Santhi. But the Ministry’s response to her request for the release of prize money and a permanent job under sports quota has dealt a massive blow to Santhi’s receding hopes. Santhi has been informed through a letter that since the medal has not been restored to her, the Ministry cannot give Rs 10 lakh cash award for the medal. Also, the Ministry does not provide or recommend jobs in central/state government offices.[38]

"My legacy will remain not with my medals but with the determination and hope to overcome my past torment and my present struggles, I want to live my dream through my students."[2]

— Santhi Soundarajan

Santhi told the BBC Tamil Service that the Indian authorities had not fought her case after she was stripped off her silver medal at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha.[3][39]

On 29 July 2015, The Madras High Court has directed the State government to consider Santhi’s plea for relaxation in educational qualifications and help her become a coach at the Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu (SDATN). As per the notification issued by the Youth Welfare and Sports Development in April 2015, an applicant contesting for the post of the coach should have an education qualification of a bachelor's degree and Santhi did not have one. Justice D. Hariparanthaman directed the Secretary of the Youth Welfare and Sports Development to “consider her claim for the post of coach by granting requisite relaxation as a special case”, in the light of the documents produced by her in the sports area and pass appropriate orders within six weeks.[40]

Court of Arbitration for Sport Verdict[edit]

Santhi Soundarajan hopes to run again. Welcoming the Court of Arbitration for Sport's ruling in favour of Dutee Chand on 27 July 2015 for suspending gender test, the landmark ruling has also fuelled Santhi's hopes of regaining the silver medal and the Rs 10-lakh prize money from the central government which was withheld after the gender test row.[41][42]

Achievements & Honours[edit]

Soundarajan has won 11 international medals and 50 national medals, including:

Year Award Honouring body Notes
2016 Young Inspirational Women Leader Award[43] World Women Leadership Congress (WWLC) Awarded for her contributions towards increasing the participation of young Tamil girls in Athletics.[44]

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b "Poll ticket, crowd-funded academy on Santhi's agenda - The Times of India". The Times Of India. 
  3. ^ a b "Santhi 'medal should be returned'". BBC News. 14 September 2009. 
  4. ^ a b
  5. ^
  6. ^ India strike it rich in track and field events, The Hindu, 9 December 2006
  7. ^ "Indian athlete fails gender test". BBC News. 18 December 2006. Retrieved 20 August 2009. 
  8. ^ "Indian silver medalist female runner at Asian Games fails gender test". International Herald Tribune. 18 December 2006. 
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^ Saner, Emine (30 July 2008). "The gender trap". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 20 August 2009. 
  13. ^ "The sad story of Santhi Soundarajan". The Times of India. 9 January 2007. Archived from the original on 12 January 2009. Retrieved 20 August 2009. 
  14. ^ a b "Sex-test failure attempts suicide". Fox Sports. 6 September 2007. Retrieved 20 August 2009. 
  15. ^
  16. ^ "Shanti fails Doha gender test". The Telegraph (Calcutta, India). 18 December 2006. 
  17. ^ S. Sen (20 December 2006) "AFI to investigate Santhi case, uneven diet cited as possible reason" The Raw Story
  18. ^ "Semenya 'must not be humiliated'". BBC News. 11 September 2009. 
  19. ^ a b "India athlete makes plea for Semenya". CNN. 14 September 2009. 
  20. ^ a b "Breaking News, Analysis, Politics, Blogs, News Photos, Video, Tech Reviews -". Time. 1 September 2009. 
  21. ^
  22. ^ Chidananda, Shreedutta (19 July 2014). "Dutee Chand finds support in Santhi". The Hindu (Chennai, India). 
  23. ^
  24. ^
  25. ^
  26. ^ Karthikeyan, D. (30 July 2012). "Cities / Madurai : Madurai comes out of the closet". The Hindu (Chennai, India). Retrieved 10 October 2012. 
  27. ^
  28. ^ "India athlete makes plea for Semenya". CNN. 14 September 2009. 
  29. ^ "Santhi turns to coaching after suicide attempt". Taipei Times. 11 June 2009. Retrieved 20 August 2009. 
  30. ^ "Asiad medallist labours at brick kiln". The Times Of India. 24 July 2012. 
  31. ^
  32. ^ "Financial aid for Santhi". The Hindu (Chennai, India). 11 July 2013. 
  33. ^ "Graduation day at SAI South Centre". The Hindu (Chennai, India). 1 May 2014. 
  34. ^ "Santhi leaves tainted past, is all set to coach athletes - The Times of India". The Times Of India. 
  35. ^
  36. ^
  37. ^ "Santhi's plea". The Hindu (Chennai, India). 21 December 2014. 
  38. ^
  39. ^
  40. ^ Jesudasan, Dennis S. (1 August 2015). "HC comes to the aid of Santhi". The Hindu (Chennai, India). 
  41. ^ "Santhi keen on getting her Asiad medal back - The Times of India". The Times Of India. 
  42. ^ "Ruling on Dutee gives Santhi a Ray of hope". The New Indian Express. 10 August 2015. 
  43. ^
  44. ^