Gender and Athletics: India's Own Caster Semenya

  • Share
  • Read Later
Michael Steele / Getty Images for DAGOC

Santhi Soundarajan of India, left, is awarded a silver medal in the Women's 800-m event during the 15th Asian Games Doha 2006 in Qatar

Santhi Soundarajan has a message for Caster Semenya, the South African track star whose gender has sparked an international athletics row: "She should not abandon the fight." Soundarajan lost her 2006 Asian Games silver medal in the 800 m after failing a gender test. "I come from a small village and had no one to fight for me," Soundarajan said in an interview with TIME on Aug. 29. "I hope Semenya will come out of this better than I did."

Like Semenya, Soundarajan, 28, comes from extremely modest beginnings. Born in the village of Kathakkurichi to brick-kiln workers in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, she was a versatile athlete in school, competing in field hockey, middle-distance running and javelin. In 2004, an engineering college in Chennai, the state's biggest city, recruited Soundarajan with a scholarship to study computer technology. She was soon the college's star performer, setting an Indian record for the women's 3,000-m steeplechase. At a national meet in Bangalore in July 2005 she won the 800 m, 1,500 m and 3,000 m. She won the silver medal in the 800 m at the Asian Championships in Incheon, South Korea, in 2005, and repeated that feat a year later at the Asian Games in Doha, Qatar.

That was Soundarajan's last competition. Shortly after she was awarded the medal, she was asked to undergo a sex test, which she failed, leading Asian Games officials to strip her of her medal. Soundarajan was later diagnosed with AIS, or androgen insensitivity syndrome, a condition in which a genetic male is resistant to androgens, the male sex hormones that include testosterone, leading the body to appear externally female. "I cannot comment on the gender test as I am not a doctor, but the incident surely robbed India of a world-class athlete," says P. Nagarajan, her coach, who recruited her in high school. "An incident like this is enough to ruin a girl's life — and it did ruin her life and career."

Despite rumors of an attempted suicide (which Soundarajan has denied) and frustration over her interrupted athletic career, Soundarajan has found a new calling in coaching, sounding content in a recent interview. She was attending a track meet in Pudukkottai, where she returned after losing her medal. "It was difficult but now finally I feel O.K.," she says with a laugh. The state government of Tamil Nadu awarded her a television set and a cash prize as a show of support after Doha. Soundarajan took that money — a little more than $30,000 — and in 2007 started a sports academy in Pudukkottai. About 68 students now train there, including two who she says won medals at the Chennai marathon. "I like to train children who have not much money but lots of talent," she says. "I am living my dream through them."

Plans for her own comeback have long been abandoned. "I would like to, but I know I can't," Soundarajan says. "I am physically and mentally totally broken." She would have loved to compete for India in last year's Olympic Games, but says she was too scared to return to competitive running. "We did try to convince her many times to get back on the tracks," says Pudukkottai district sports officer Kannuswamy. "But she even refuses to talk about it. And now it's too late."

But it's not too late for Semenya. "She should not let them take away her medal," Soundarajan says, or allow one test to determine her fate. "She is a woman and that's it, full stop," Soundarajan says. "A gender test cannot take away from you who you are."