The crowd was shouting her name. Everybody wanted to congratulate her. Every Indian was proud of her. Rewards were announced for her. She was showcasing her silver medal. But then everything was lost!
We are talking about Santhi Soundarajan (also spelled Shanthi). She is an Indian track and field athlete (running in middle distance races of 800m and 1500m). She won 12 international medals for India and around 50 medals for her home state Tamil Nadu. She stood as the pride of India, but then tragedy struck her; struck her real bad!
Santhi Soundaranjan was born in Kathakkurichi village in the Pudukkottai District of Tamil Nadu, on 17 April 1981. She had a very difficult childhood. She lived in a hut with her 4 other siblings. Her father and mother used to work in a brickyard in another town, making about 300-400 Rupees a week. Her grandfather, an experienced runner, paved her way into running. 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.
She overcame malnutrition as a child to be a winner. She won many trophies in her school days. They she got a scholarship from an Arts college in Pudukkottai, the following year, Soundarajan transferred to a college in Chennai.
She took it to next level in 2003; winning 1Gold in 5000m, silver in 800m and bronze in 400m in the International Peace Sports Festival. Then the following year she won 2 silver medals in 2004 Asian Grand Prix. Then the following year she traded up; winning 2 gold medals (400mx4 relay and 800m) in Asian indoor games, Bangkok, 2005. In 2005, she also won a silver medal in 800m race in Asian Athletics Championships.
Then it was 2006. It was a turning point in the then young athlete’s life. It started out great; she won 2 gold medals and a silver medal at South Asian Games, Colombo. Stage was all set for Asian Games 2006, Doha. All eyes were on Santhi, India was dying to see a woman runner win a medal in over 22 years. Well, it did come true. In the 800 meters, Soundarajan took the silver in 2 minutes, 3.16 seconds, beating Viktoriya Yalovtseva of Kazakhstan by 0.03 seconds. Those two minutes proved to be the longest two minutes for her life. What embarked was the greatest betrayal of her life, reality betrayed her.
Santhi was stripped of her silver pride on account of a gender test which she failed; Her DNA had chromosome-combo which made her not female enough to compete as a woman in athletic events. Reports initially suggested that her upbringing in impoverished rural India, where she reportedly only started eating proper meals in 2004, could be a factor behind the test result. She was raised a woman. It wasn’t her fault that she did not get favourable living conditions.
The series of unfortunate events rolled ahead. People, who were praising her, now shunned her. Money awarded was taken away. All hopes seemed diminished. She had to go back to live in the hut she grew in. She tried to take her own life. “I was shattered by the failed test, the Athletics Federation of India did not support me, did not fight my cause. I was hoping they would. I was depressed. I felt like I had lost everything. It still hurts. I loved the sport so much. My dream broken, I attempted suicide.” Nobody was there for her.
Some help came her way, later on. In January 2007, the then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Karunanidhi awarded Soundarajan a television set and cash prize of Rs. 15 lakh for her Doha Games effort, despite the fallout of Soundarajan failing a gender test. She used that money to train students for free.
She struggled and struggled a lot. She was told she could never participate in any sports events. But she never gave up trying. In 2015, Madras High Court directed the State government to consider Soundarajan’s plea for relaxation in educational qualifications and help her become a coach at the Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu. In 2016, State government decided to appoint her as a permanent athletic coach under Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu. And finally after a long fought war, which stalled for over a decade, Soundarajan received her appointment order for a permanent athletic coach under SDAT on 20 December 2016.
In 2016, she was awarded with Young Inspirational Women Leader Award, for her contributions towards increasing the participation of young Tamil girls in Athletics. And in 2017, she got the Living Pheonix award conferred on her for Santhi’s remarkable contributions in the field of Athletics.
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.”
Some stories are hard to listen. This is one of those stories. She fell, fell into deep ends but rose again, she is indeed a living Pheonix. We must always remember her. We salute you!