Santhi Soundarajan: Sport, Gender and Suicide in India

September 09, 2007
Amrita Rajan

Just a few months ago, Santhi Soundarajan was the butt of late night jokes on American television and the subject of outraged editorials in Indian newspapers as the Indian woman athlete who failed a gender test.

While details are scarce and confusing, news reports have it that shortly after Soundarajan won the silver in the women’s 800 metre event for India at the Asian Games in Doha last year, she failed a routine (but not compulsory) test carried out by a team of doctors (including a gynecologist, endocrinologist, psychologist and internal medicine specialist). Their consensus? Soundarajan “does not possess the sexual characteristics” necessary to qualify as a female of the species.

Perhaps it was the outcome of Games officials seeing an Indian win a medal in a sporting event and thinking, Now what’s wrong with this picture?


Levity aside, this past week, Soundarajan, now stripped of her medal (featured above, first from left), made the news again when she was admitted to a hospital in her native Tamil Nadu for attempted suicide. Well, there’s a shock for Chief Minister Karunanidhi - apparently a shiny new plasma TV and a check for a few lakh rupees isn’t a magical cure-all for having your life turned upside down.

Leading the life of a recluse and unemployed, this was the first anybody had heard of her since the results of the gender test were revealed. Although she has denied all allegations even in her weakened state, her doctors insist that she swallowed “veterinary medicines” in a bid to end her life. A few thoughts:

When somebody tries to commit suicide and you’re called to attend to them, kindly keep the details of your patient to yourself. The place for a doctor attending a high risk patient is by that patient’s bedside, not confirming the particulars of the case to whichever reporter that’s on the phone. She’s already been through a lot if she’s tried to kill herself, she doesn’t need your tuppence to help her that last remaining inch over the edge, alright?

Secondly, why is it that we’re only hearing about her now and in these circumstances? Immediately after the scandal broke there was a lot of stuff written up in the papers about the smelly state of affairs in Indian sport, especially women’s sport. Months and one successful sports movie later, everything is very Chak De and all the righteous indignation is about media coverage.

This is what really bothers me about the Chak De phenomenon. I loved the movie unreservedly and I agree with the point that so many have raised i.e. that our famous obsession with cricket has slowly strangled all other sport in India. I even agree with the argument that publicity has a lot to do with the popularity of a sport. Look at spelling bees, for example - I mean, spelling bees for crying out loud, people! All it took was one bizarre documentary full of kids going crazy under parental pressure and hey, presto! Memorizing the dictionary is now a sport and you can catch it on ESPN (funny post).

But coming back to Chak De, very little of the focus seems to have shifted to underlying point driven home relentlessly with everything but a sledgehammer throughout the movie: the apathy and downright criminal negligence on the part of the government authorities and officials who run Indian sport and the deep rot that has set into the “system”.

I’m not a sports fanatic so I’m sure I’m missing out great big nuances somewhere but it seems to me that everytime I see India lose yet another sporting event, I’m sure to find someone somewhere saying something along the lines of: Indians aren’t big on sport. These people are either expressing themselves very badly or else I grew up in an entirely different India because it's often appeared to me that every single Indian I know, from my mother on to the little kids across the street, are positively sports mad. In fact, I have always felt like I was part of some despised minority because I lack a mania for sports.

Additionally, I went to a school that sponsored talented kids enrolled in programs with the Sports Authority of India. In return for tuition, room and board at a school that many of them would otherwise have been hard pressed to afford, SAI required them to make full use of the track field that the rest of us used mainly for football or dodgeball and the like. So I know there are kids out there who’re not only willing to make sport their whole life but are incredibly eager to do so, not least because it paves the way to a better life for a number of them as Chak De pointed out.

In any case, it defies simple logic that anybody would believe that "Indians" as a whole are uninterested in sport - if nothing else, then just numerically speaking, we are looking at one billion people; are you telling me not even a fraction of that number feel the spark of sportsmanship in their bones?

Others have tried to make the case that we’re not naturally built for sport unlike, say, the Australians. On the face of it, that sounds like something that’s true. Except for two things:

A) if one needs to be built like the Australians to win medals, then why are the Chinese sweeping everything in sight recently?

B) you can work on your physique to a great extent. That’s why God invented dietitians and gym machines. I assure you the Australians are well aware of the existence of both.

So we have the talent, some of it recognized, perhaps even celebrated - and forget winning medals, we’re up on charges of doping and failing gender tests? I know I’m not the only one who thinks something’s not adding up. From time to time, I even get to read the thoughts of various former players about the (dismal) quality and conditions of training available to athletes in India. Unfortunately, these articles only seem to make the papers after we’ve lost at yet another event and that too rather badly. I don’t know whether this is an editorial decision of the newspapers or whether humiliation is the only ink that gets the sports writer’s pen working, but I would have thought that the time to pay attention to the deepening abyss that is Indian sport, especially Indian athletics, is now. Before it gets any worse.

As for Soundarajan, she has always insisted that she is a woman. And seldom mentioned in any of the press briefings about her is the fact that she was cleared of any “deliberate wrongdoing” and might be a hermaphrodite due to a rare chromosome condition:

Dr. P S M Chandran, Director (Sports Medicine), Sports Authority of India, says: “There are hermaphrodite, pseudo-hermaphrodite and all these groups are there. There are certain syndrome diseases - Turner Syndrome, Klenfelter Syndrome all these. When you examine the chromosome you will find that it doesn’t fit into a ‘pukka’ female or male group. So it is an aberration to the normal picture. So that’s why they call it a syndrome, some type of a medical problem.”

What really made me mad when reading that report, however, was a casual bit of information that one of the cretins from SAI tossed in there: these are “symptoms which she has been diagnosed with before”. So everybody knew and they just sat on that information and let her take that test in Doha?

Bear in mind that Soundarajan is not just an Indian woman athlete who’s failed a gender test; she’s an Indian woman athlete from a small town in Tamil Nadu who failed a gender test. Even if hers is the best small town in all of India, it’ll still be a small Indian town and as such, she’ll always be that curiosity piece that gets whispered about.

So to sum it up, here’s a small town girl in her mid-twenties who’s never done anything in her life but run and she chased her dream all the way to the victory stand… only to have everything, including her gender identity, taken away at the end of it. And all of it went down at an international sporting event. She didn’t step off that ledge; she was pushed off it. And everybody looked the other way.

But hey, now she gets to see the worst moments of her life get played out on national TV with amazing clarity on her fantastic plasma set. How lucky can a girl get?

Amrita Rajan is a writer based in NYC
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Santhi Soundarajan: Sport, Gender and Suicide in India


Author: Amrita Rajan


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September 9, 2007
04:36 AM


apathy is a malady in itself!

September 9, 2007
09:29 AM

"Look at spelling bees, for example - I mean, spelling bees for crying out loud, people! All it took was one bizarre documentary full of kids going crazy under parental pressure and hey, presto! Memorizing the dictionary is now a sport and you can catch it on ESPN"

Amrita: Small factual correction, if I may. Accepted that spelling bee got into the mainstream "sporting" consciousness after the documentary "Spellbound", but ask any ABD and they'd tell you that it has been a sporting subculture for decades (since the 1920s) now and is much older than ESPN which is merely 27 yrs of age, I think.

September 9, 2007
09:36 AM

Amrita: When somebody tries to commit suicide and you're called to attend to them, kindly keep the details of your patient to yourself. The place for a doctor attending a high risk patient is by that patient's bedside, not confirming the particulars of the case to whichever reporter that's on the phone. She's already been through a lot if she's tried to kill herself, she doesn't need your tuppence to help her that last remaining inch over the edge, alright?

Chandra: "Shanthi is able to speak and she has denied that she attempted suicide. She maintains that she took some medicines for stomach pain," Pudukkotai District Superintendent of Police Kapil Kumar C Saratkar said.

Saratkar said the doctors had declared her condition to be stable.

"However, we do not want to take any risk and we are referring her to Thanjavur Government Medical College Hospital for further examination," he added.

The doctors, who attended on her, said she had consumed some "veterinary medicines," he said.

September 9, 2007
09:52 AM

Amrita: What really made me mad when reading that report, however, was a casual bit of information that one of the cretins from SAI tossed in there: these are "symptoms which she has been diagnosed with before". So everybody knew and they just sat on that information and let her take that test in Doha?

Chandra: An athletics selector said officials knew before the competition that Santhi had been denied a job in the Railways on similar grounds. "But a powerful vice-president of the AFI, who was also on a doping investigation panel in 2005, was trying to help her," the selector said. (DNA India)

In other words, even Santhi was aware of this condition. Yet she participated.

Chandra: An Indian official, who was part of the contingent in Doha, said Santhi was sent back home two-three days before the closing ceremony of the Games and questions were raised at the Games village why she returned prematurely.

A highly placed source in the Athletics Federation of India said Santhi had undergone a similar test before her departure to Doha but was cleared.
"The Sports Authority of India conducted various tests on all Doha-bound athletes, including Santhi. The tests were all clear," the AFI official said. (Sify)

Aditi Nadkarni
September 9, 2007
11:15 AM

Amrita!! I'm always excited to find out what you've written about:)

Honestly, I was not aware of the details of this controversy at all. I agree with you on the fact that doctors should not have clarified information by reporters and instead been more focused on their patient's right to medical privacy. If this were some rich celebrity the doctors would've been paid to keep their traps shut. The HIPAA laws in the US prevent any medical practitioner from discussing a patient's medical history with anybody other than the patient. The Hippocratic oath also includes such a dictum:

"What I may see or hear in the course of the treatment or even outside of the treatment in regard to the life of men, which on no account one must spread abroad, I will keep to myself, holding such things shameful to be spoken about"

I also agree that she must've gone through hell. The stigma of this incident will likely follow her around and in India they'll never let her forget it.

After reading your article it sounds like she was treated like a derby horse by people looking to make her the next big thing if all went unnoticed. That is sad.

But what is bizarre is that she was stripped of her medal. I'll tell you why that is so upsetting to me. Because it is blatant discrimination against a woman with possible sexual disorders that give her no advantage over the other runners. Scientifically, very simply put this test is inaccurate and discriminates against women with sexual developmental problems. They test for secondary sexual characters, they test for genitalia, for hormonal patterns and for the XX chromosome pair that distinguishes female from male (XY). But guess what? Pseudohermaphroditism and complete androgen insensitivity syndrome (CAIS) are two known diseases where the woman will fail all of those tests but is a woman who needs hormone treatment and some reassignment surgery. So why discriminate against her by stripping her of her medla when her condition may not give her an undue advantage over other players but instead puts her in a medical category which should explain her failing the test?

I am surprised there hasn't been more clamor and noise about the discrimination. Santi needs a good lawyer I think. I have a feeling that if this were an American athlete with better access to overzealous lawyers and health professionals, she would've gotten people to at least investigate whether the stripping of the medal was with just cause.

September 9, 2007
12:04 PM

aditi/amrita... there are doctor/patient confidentiality laws in India, but only a few scrupulous doctors adhere to them. but technically, if someone wanted to sue on those grounds here they could.

September 9, 2007
01:15 PM

Temp - absolutely.

Anantha - I wasn't aware of its subculture status and as a fan of the thing, I'm glad to know I'm not completely out of my mind :) However, in the present day it's been (re?) classified as a "niche sport" which is why I made the ESPN reference.

Chandra - I suggest you read some of the links I've provided. The doctors have done much, much more than certify what the police had to say. If that was your point, I'm not entirely clear.
Secondly, as far as Santhi being aware of the condition goes, you should also keep in mind that she has said:
A) Her gender identity is that of a woman
B) She was not aware that the tests being carried out on her were anything other than routine and would go towards a gender test.
C) If she failed on other occasions then SAI's contention that she cleared it before going to the Games doesn't absolve them of anything because what that points to is what Aditi mentions: this is subjective test and if you fail it once, the possibility to fail again exists.
D) I don;t understand the relevance of her early return from India. Are they suggesting that their plan was for her to sneak past the tests and now she deserves what she got for not falling in with them?

Aditi - well that's a compliment! :) Honestly, I'm a little shocked as well by the kind of coverage Santhi has received. Everybody seems completely hung up on the fact that she "failed a gender test" and it took a bit of digging to find out that it was a medical condition and not the result of deliberate chicanery in search of medals. And when that little fact was reported it was a throwaway line - so its good to know what you just explained.
And you make an excellent point vis-a-vis her rights and her nationality. Has santhi been accorded psychiatric counseling, why didn't they go for surgery when they knew about her condition, what has she been doing for all these months, have SAI and the sports ministry taken any steps - questions nobody has asked and apparently nobody wants to know.

SS - well, that's the thing isn't it? In all probability, someone like Santhi would never sue because she doesn't know she can and in any case she'd want to forget about this affair asap and her family probably want her to do the same. So nothing is resolved.

September 9, 2007
01:26 PM


I read thru ur links and half a dozen other reports, the common theme is that the police were the ones leaking the story, not the doctors.

the claim is that she was rejected by the railways because of this issue way before the AG06. so the news that she had a gender problem may not have been so shocking to her afterall. for her this was a dal roti issue

September 9, 2007
01:45 PM

Well, Chandra in that case you and I are coming at this from different angles because to me, the issue is not whether the police leaked the news first but the fact that the doctors are discussing the matter at all. The interview with TOI for example was completely beyond the line.

And also, there is a difference in knowing that you have a medical condition and having that condition broadcast around the world without further explanation. In any case, if the SAI knew she had a medical condition why didn't they get it rectified before it snowballed esp when she was their next big hope? Instead they let it slide. Sorry, I don't think the SAI gets a free card on this one.

Also as far as dal roti goes - I think that's a gross oversimplification.

September 9, 2007
04:21 PM


I dont disagree with your analysis at all. I am in total agreement with you on a. How the issue was handled and b. Your take on sports in India.
Aditi has brought in a point about the science of sex determination and SS brings about the kind of legal support she has reeived from AFI and Govt of India, again, valid points.

I digress with the two points I made and will leave it here.



September 9, 2007
11:45 PM

"I'm not a sports fanatic so I'm sure I'm missing out great big nuances somewhere but it seems to me that everytime I see India lose yet another sporting event, I'm sure to find someone somewhere saying something along the lines of: Indians aren't big on sport."

Amrita... i think the essence lies in these lines..... we (the general non-sporting public) unsportingly identify with sport primarily in terms of winning and losing...

In the greatest sporting nations in the world, the sportsmen play to win, but winning and losing are incidental to the basic value of playing sport..

The difference between Cricket and all the other sports, and i make this distinction purely because the Indian cricket team is the only world class Indian team in a spectator sport.. is that cricket has a robust club level following... first class level following... and only subsequently an international following.

Tendulkar or Gavaskar or Kapil or Pataudi did not make Indian cricket.... they merely showcased it.

Is Azad Maidan the greatest cricketing infrastructure in the world? No.... apart from the pitches, the rest of the place in unusable - it is bare, littered, untidyly mowed (often unmowed).... but you will never find it empty..... if there is sunlight, someone or the other is always playing cricket there....

How many beaches in India do you find football being played on? How many hockey grounds are used except when the designated team is in its routine?

The associations do not care because the public does not care.... who would care about these runners when they are not winning medals? Do those who come in 4th or 6th or get eliminated in the heats invite any interest at all?

The general public - you and me have an enormous role in the blame game that so demoralizes all sport except cricket (which is resilient) in India...

September 9, 2007
11:46 PM

Terrific writing though!! :)

Mianne Bagger
September 15, 2007
05:58 AM

"..She didn't step off that ledge; she was pushed off it. And everybody looked the other way."

Bravo! You're the first person I've seen who has seen the truth for what it is.

One of the best articles I seen written with regards to Santhi. I think the sporting and media worlds portrayal of this incident is a disgrace. Not only did it lead to the unfair dismissal and loss of Santhi's medal. It led to extremely public and offensive ridicule of Santhi, with a label of being 'male' and having 'failed a sex test'. This is now a label that Santhi is stuck with forever, yet she has done nothing wrong other than being born!

The fault lies primarily with the ignorance, and arrogance of sports. Squarely with the IOC and other national Olympic governing bodies.

The IOC have been aware of gender diversity for many decades, and that it is a natural variation of human form. Yet sports continues to be based around the dichotomous notion of gender - male and female - with inadequate and socially defined sex verification procedures.

The IOC should have stepped up immediately to return Santhi's medal that she rightfully earned, yet, as you stated, everyone just turned a blind eye, and walked the other way! The media should immediately have been educated on the reality of Santhi's condition, and that she is nothing other than female.

She did not fail a 'sex test', she failed to meet the sporting worlds definition of what is considered acceptable as a female.

The IOC and other international sporting federations are now under much scrutiny for their unethical practices and these organisations need to be held accountable for their actions. The most extreme result of thier unethical practices, is what has now happened to Santhi. This has happened before, and it CANNOT be allowed to happen again.

I hope for more professional and ethical reporting on this topic in the future. Much is happening in the world of sports yet nobody is reporting on it.

I apologise if this may have been a little off topic, but I wanted to thank you for a wonderful and progressive article.

Christine Burns MBE
September 15, 2007
09:27 AM

Bravo Amrita for such a well written piece.

The sorry reality about a case such as this is that debate is usually conducted by people who know nothing at all about the reality of gender diversity and that Santhi appears to be no more than that -- one example of the 70+ different ways in which any of us can be not quite male or female enough for the stereotypical notion of sex. Estimates are that more than one in a hundred people have one of these conditions - often without knowing. If they DO know then chances are that they have realised pretty quick that it is something you keep to yourself because of the stigma involved. And, in that way, the vicious circle of invisibility is sustained.

Think about it. Everything about nature screams "variation, variation, variation!". We're not all the same height. There aren't just two or three kinds of personality. Hair comes in every shade; so do eyes. Being a little different in any of these respects is not at all remarkable. Yet we are taught at our parents' knee that there are exactly two sexes and you're either a perfect specimen of one or the other. At school children are then inculcated with the additional lie that XX-Girl and XY=Boy and that's that.

Well, that ISN'T that. XY can equal girl, and XX can equal boy -- and discovering that someone falls into that or any other kind of category (with a high power microscope in a laboratory) says nothing about having any kind of advantage over other members of the sex you grew up feeling and believing yourself to be.

Armed with that kind of understanding the treatment of Santhi is not just wrong but outrageously cruel. A shame on "sport" for perpetrating it.

Christine Burns MBE
A campaigner in the UK for the
rights of ALL gender diverse people

September 19, 2007
11:22 AM

Sorry I took so long to respond to these last few comments but circumstances intervened :(

Kartikeya - I agree to a large extent with what you've written. Everyone knows today that cricket is pays well, so parents won't exactly put up a fuss if their kids have talent. On the other hand, there's the kid who's really good at bicycle races - also an international sport that rakes in big bucks - but his parents would probably slap him upside the head and tell him to try for that 5000-rupee job because where is the Indian cycling champion?

So yes, coverage is important. But that same coverage, imo, contributes to the win or lose attitude we've developed. Every cricket match is a matter of life and death and now that burning people's homes is a legitimate way of showing protest, it probably IS a matter of life and death.

I wonder why we dont have gladiators in India. I'm sure the public will love it. The solution of course, is promoting more sport. Privately. I personally cheered when the ICL was set up because my hope is that more such leagues will come up for other sports in india. Is that naive of me? :)

Chandra - Oh. well in that case i dont know what we're arguing about :)

September 19, 2007
11:34 AM

Mianne and Christine - thank you for the very kind words :)

I was one of those people who heard many months ago that Santhi had failed a "gender test". Via The Tonight Show with Jay Leno if I remember correctly. And that was all the information I had for a very long time.

What I found shocking was that the level of discourse about Santhi was stuck at the "man or woman?" level. Hardly anybody had bothered to mention that she had been cleared of charges and that this was a natural condition that could be rectified if she so wished. Everybody seemed much more interested in the sensational headlines they could write rather than anything else.

As I wrote this piece however, I began to wonder about the issues both of you have brought up. What do the international sporting bodies do about, as Christine describes them, gender diverse people? I guess you answered my question.

And this in the 21st century!

Thank you both for your comments.

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