Thursday, September 24, 2009

Indian runner knows about gender-test backlash

PUDUKKOTTAI, India — Considering suicide after being stripped of her medal and shunned by the people around her, Indian runner Santhi Soundarajan knows a bit about what Caster Semenya is going through.

Soundarajan failed a gender test after finishing second in the women's 800-meter race at the 2006 Asian Games and was forced to return her silver medal. Semenya, the 800 world champion from South Africa who has been going through the same type of test to prove she is eligible to compete as a woman, is facing the same future.

"I pray that Semenya does not go through what I've been through, it almost drove me to committing suicide," Soundarajan, now 28, told The Associated Press on Saturday in an interview in her southern Indian hometown. "I've suffered immensely due to the stigma of the failed gender test."

Soundarajan, who came from a poor family, was forced to drop out of competitive athletics after she failed the gender test in Doha, Qatar. Finding a job and earning enough money to eat became a daily struggle.

Semenya also comes from poverty, but she managed to win the 800 at the worlds in 1 minute, 55.45 seconds — 2.45 seconds ahead of her closest competitor. It was the best 800 time in the world this year.

Before the race even started, however, the IAAF said it had ordered gender tests to be done on Semenya because questions had been raised about her muscular physique and recent stunning improvement in times.

The IAAF has refused to confirm or deny Australian media reports saying the tests show that Semenya has both male and female sex organs. It has said the test results are being studied and a decision on whether she will be allowed to compete in women's events is expected in November.

Soundarajan, however, wasn't surprised the issue has come up again so soon after her own ordeal.

"With so much of workload athletes go through, there will be hormonal changes. It's bound to happen," said Soundarajan, who has been coaching poor children for the last two years. "The authorities should bear this in mind when they take decisions.

"I cannot forget what I had to go through after my Asian Games medal was taken back. I hail from a poor family, and no one would give me a job. My entire family suffered as people began looking at me with a jaundiced eye, treating me like a cheat."

Soundarajan is hoping Semenya doesn't have to go through a similar experience.

"I do not know about Semenya's family conditions and support, but I hope she does not lose heart," Soundarajan said.

It was through coaching children that Soundarajan was able to change her life for the better.

"It was a tough decision. I was still reeling under the impact of a trauma, but had no available options or choices to make ... so coaching it was," Soundarajan said. "Coaching has given me immense satisfaction, especially as these young boys and girls are now competing for medals in the state competitions.

"During school vacations, I get to train more than 60 boys and girls. The facilities are not very good, but I was delighted when my wards secured the first and third positions in the three-mile run during last year's Chennai Marathon. This year, they'll win the top three places."

Getting her own medal back would be a dream come true, she said. The Athletics Federation of India has said it might consider asking for its return from the Olympic Council of Asia.

"I'll run miles to accept it back. It will change my life," Soundarajan said. "I do hope that people will treat me better when I am relieved of that stigma."


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