By Soyra Gune
Santhi Soundarajan was appointed as a permanent trainer by the Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu on 20th December. The track and field athlete was unfairly stripped of the silver medal she won in the 800 metres from the 2006 Asian Games in Doha after she failed a “gender test”.
Soundarajan was born in to a Dalit family where she was the eldest of five children. She went on to win 11 medals on the international stage and 50 nationally, while representing Tamil Nadu. However, when she was barred from competing, Soundarajan found herself battling intense media scrutiny, and took the job as a brick kiln labourer in her native village of Kaththakuruchi, earning 200 rupees a day. When videos of her working here began to circulate, the Sports Ministry registered her for a one year diploma in sports coaching at the Sports Authority of Bangalore in 2013.
Before this long-overdue appointment, she had worked on a contractual basis as a coach for the state government before resigning in 2010 as she was paid only 5000 rupees. Her repeated requests to be awarded the cash prize she was promised for her medal and be allotted a permanent job in sports were earlier declined by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports who replied with a brutal “…it is informed that since the medal has not been restored to you, the Ministry cannot give cash Award for the medal” and “This Ministry does not provide jobs or recommend particular spokespersons for jobs in Central/State Government offices”.
The pressure on the Sports Ministry mounted again this year when Thappad, a Facebook platform for people to express their opinions, released a video about her just before the 2016 Rio Olympics. In the video, Soundarajan says, “I have short hair. I dress like a man. So I must be man. No. I am Santhi Soundarajan and I am a woman.”
Soundarajan’s case is similar to that of South African athlete, Caster Semenya. Semenya, who won the gold at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin for 800 metres was also subjected to gender tests by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). She faced a 11-month ban from taking part in all competitive events. However, Semenya was supported by social media users who said that making her go through the tests was unfair. Finally, the IAAF cleared Semenya and returned her 2008 title along with the prize money. She was made the flag bearer for South Africa in the 2012 London Olympics, and won the gold in the recent 2016 Rio Olympics.
In 2015, Court for Arbitration of Sports banned the IAAF from subjecting female athletes to gender tests for two years and ruled that the IAAF had to provide evidence for higher androgen levels being associated with higher levels of performance.
Soundarajan wishes that no other female athlete should have to go through the same ordeal as her, and says she is glad that athletes such as Semenya and Dutee Chand, who also failed gender tests, were able to challenge this decision at the Court for Arbitration of Sports and have managed to continue to run.