Ten years after Tamil Nadu’s star athlete Santhi Soundarajan was stripped of her silver medal for failing a gender test at the Asian Games in 2006, she has been appointed as an athlete trainer/coach in a permanent capacity with the Sports Development Authority in the state.
Santhi, who belongs to a Dalit family, will be given a salary of Rs.30,000 per month but the location of her posting is yet to be decided. While speaking to BBC Tamil she said, “I couldn’t even go out freely in the society. I hope this decision will put an end to all this.”
At the Asian Games in Doha, after her second place finish, Santhi was subjected to a gender test. She failed the test and was diagnosed with hyperandrogenism — a condition characterised by excess circulation of testosterone in the female body. This condition deemed her unfit to participate in sports events against other female athletes since hyperandrogenism was supposed to give sportswomen an added advantage.
Not only was her medal taken away but Santhi was also banned by the Athletics Federation of India from participating in sports events at any level and all her achievements were struck off the record.
Santhi moved on to training medal-winning athletes as a coach in Tamil Nadu until 2010, but her contractual job and the meagre pay of Rs. 5,000 per month forced her to look for other options. She was given Rs. 15 lakh by M Karunanidhi, who was the CM of Tamil Nadu then, and she used the money to fund her sister’s wedding and her siblings’ education.
In 2012, a Times of India interview revealed that Santhi was working as a daily wage labourer at a brick kiln with the rest of her family. She said, “”I’ve been on this job three months now. In the initial days, I could do nothing with my hands after work. I could neither eat nor use my fingers to grasp any object. They would be tender and swollen. The situation is no better now.” But in 2014, she secured a contract-based job as a coach at the Sports Authority of India’s (SAI) facility in Mayiladuthurai, Tamil Nadu.
It is essential to keep in mind that multi-medal winning athletes like Dutee Chand and Caster Semeyana of South Africa have also been diagnosed with hyperandrogenism. But they were able to continue competing due to timely legal support and Dutee even represented India at the Rio Olympics in 2016.
Read more about Dutee’s story here.
Some experts are of the opinion that hyperandrogenism does not in fact give female athletes added leverage. And in 2015, the Switzerland based Court of Arbitration for Sports suspended International Association of Athletics Federations’ regulations on hyperandrogenism. The ruling stated that there was no apparent scientific evidence to support the claim that female athletes diagnosed with hyperandrogenism have a performance advantage over others.
In August 2016, an online debate and discussion platform launched a petition for Santhi to be given a permanent job by the Tamil Nadu government and for her name to be reinstated in the official records. In her video profile for the petition, she said, “I did not conform to the world’s definition of being a woman. My gender was debated on national television. I felt naked and humiliated in front of the world.”
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Last year, the state government was asked to consider her plea for a permanent government job by the Madras High Court. And in March 2016, she filed a petition with the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC), requesting a copy of the gender test from 2006, which had not been handed over to her despite repeated requests. In this petition, she also wrote about facing caste based discrimination at her work place. Taking cognisance of the injustice faced by Santhi, NSCS issued a notice to the secretary of Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports in October.
She was finally given a permanent job as a coach in October 2016 and K, Pandirajan, Sports Minister of TN, told Deccan Chronicle that the appointment order was an attempt to “restore the dignity” of a Tamil sportswoman. Santhi added, “Not having a permanent job had been a big worry ever since I ended my running career. The Tamil Nadu government’s announcement has lifted the gloom. I can’t wait to hit the ground. Our state has plenty of talent. My goal is to help our athletes realise their potential on the international stage.”