A unique connection binds Santhi Soundararajan,28,of Tamil Nadu to Caster Semenya,a black girl from Limpopo,South Africa,nine years younger than her. Both Santhi and Semenya were medal-winning athletes who were disqualified after they failed a sex-verification test.
This week,the governing body of international athletics cleared Semenya to compete again. Santhi,however,can still only hope that she will return to the track one day.
I want to come back and run again, Santhi said. Look at the way the South Africans backed Semenya. The (Tamil Nadu) state government has helped me financially,but neither the central government nor the athletics association here has ever backed me.
When Semenya was stripped of her 800 m gold at the 2009 World Championships,all of South Africa,including President Jacob Zuma,rallied to her defence,eventually forcing the IAAF to rehabilitate her.
By contrast,the Athletics Federation of India accepted the IAAFs ban on Santhi after she had won the 800 m silver at the 2006 Doha Asian Games,and has since allowed her to slip into oblivion.
Semenyas rehabilitation this week has not galvanised the federation. I can only tell you that these (Santhis and Semenyas) are two different cases, said Lalit Bhanot,who was AFI secretary when Santhi
Another AFI official said,We dont know on what exact grounds Semenya was cleared. But Id like to say that when the Santhi episode happened,we put the best medical team forward to argue for her.
For Santhi,rising international concern over the ambiguity surrounding gender testing exemplified by the Semenya case is little consolation. Asked how life has changed for her since 2005-06 when she was hailed as Indias great track hope,she shoots back,Life,what life? Athletics was my life and I made so many sacrifices to reach that level… I could have achieved so much more for myself and for my country.
Santhi was 25 when she won the Asiad medal. The Kathakkuruchi-born runner was then at her peak,and dreaming of much higher honours.
Today,she lives in a rented home in Pudukkottai district,surviving on the Rs-5,000 salary she gets as a consultant-coach with the Sport Development Authority of Tamil Nadu (SDAT),where she has been employed since 2007. It took her more than a year to recover from the shock of being stripped of her medal,a period of darkness during which she even attempted suicide.
Apart from my family,no one came forward to help or support me. I consumed poison once,but somehow survived though I really wanted to end my life. Then came the coaching assignment, she said.
SDAT transferred Santhi to Pudukkottai from Chennai in 2008,where she trains young athletes.
It (the controversy) continues to bother me still. I feel better when I am busy with the camps and these kids,but I can never completely forget, she said. I have not been training like I used to,but if given another chance,I am confident of competing to the best of my ability.
Following the ruling in Semenyas favour,the South African athletes lawyer Jeffrey Kessler had told AP that he hoped the case would ensure that no female athlete in the future will have to experience the long delays and public scrutiny which Caster has been forced to endure.
But Santhi is not even in a position to look forward to a battle to challenge her right to run as a woman.