She had shot into fame last year by winning the sliver medal in the 800 meter women's race at the Asian Games in Doha. The entire state of Tamil Nadu in southern India celebrated. But within days she was stripped of the medal after failing a gender test.
And a few days ago she attempted to commit suicide by consuming poison.
AdvertisementShanthi Soundararajan, the athlete, who hails from Pudukkottai, a rural district, claimed she had been suffering from some severe stomach pain and that unable to put up with it, she consumed Floxidine, a veterinary medicine.
However, doctors who treated her are skeptical. Pain could not have been of the magnitude that could have driven her to such desperation. Possibly the acute stress she had been living under for some time could made her think of ending her life, they reasoned. She has since been discharged.
Her attempted suicide has shed poor light on the societal and psychological support system in the country to someone who should have been a celebrated athlete by now but for some obscure physiological phenomenon.
It was indeed heartwarming to see state Chief Minister M Karunanidhi standing by her at her moment of crisis. Immediately after the victory at Doha, the state government had announced a cash award of Rs 15 lakh. It remained unfazed by the gender test reports and the Chief Minister went ahead to present the award to Shanthi.
Asked by the media why he chose to give Shanthi the reward when she failed the gender test, the Chief Minister had replied magnanimously. 'It doesn't matter. After all this was the very body that ran the race.'
But there were all kinds of media speculations on her physiological problems.
The poor village girl should have felt hounded, but there was no help coming from any quarter. The state government seemed to have washed its hands of her after giving her the cash and also a big size colour TV.
Going back to the poor, cruel world known to her from childhood, should have added to the pressures on her. Her family had raised cattle and suffered considerable loss, say her close relatives in Pudukottai. 'She always wanted to be decently employed to have a regular income to educate her siblings and sustain her family,' says a long-time friend. The Chief Minister, who was sympathetic, could have given a government job, Shanthi's friends say.
She did not land any job despite her best efforts. Even the Southern Railways, a federal government agency, rejected her application on gender grounds. The cash grant was the only source of sustenance.
She surely would have felt all alone. She was perhaps was wracked by thoughts that she might never be able to participate again in any meet. The Doha test report said that she 'does not possess the sexual characteristics of a woman.'
Gender tests are not standard during competition but athletes can be asked to submit to one. The examining panel often includes a gynecologist, endocrinologist, psychologist and internal medicine specialist.
An Indian official said that he was almost certain the runner had never had a sex-change. He said the problem was more likely to be a chromosomal abnormality, like the presence of a Y chromosome he was quoted as saying.
A senior doctor from Shanthi's region said, 'Its all a mystery, let me tell you. Nobody is cleared even for a local meet without a gender test. It beats me how she was allowed to participate at a prestigious international competition without any such gender test. Whatever the Doha tests revealed, ideally the national athletics body should have given the matter top priority. It should have sought the help of competent medical experts and arranged for corrective treatment, if necessary. Nothing of that seems to have been done in her case.'
Who knows Shanthi might have lived with troubling questions about her own gender all these years. But being poor and not having access to better informed circles, she had not tried any remedial action.
Anyway her fellow athletes, including someone top stars like Shiny Wilson who coached her, have reportedly said that they have always felt Shanthi to be a female athlete and never thought otherwise. 'She is a woman and has never appeared to be a man,' says Shanthi's close friend and another athlete. No one had any suspicions about her gender.
Whatever her own thoughts on the question, the trauma of the verdict at Doha, so soon after her triumph, should have been extremely unsetlling.
Commenting on her suicide attempt, a noted psychiatrist said, 'It is almost a half-hearted attempt. Clearly she didn't want to die. She is only crying for attention, for help.'
A small team of doctors, including her family doctor and a psychiatrist should be sent to treat her. She is very much a healthy girl with no other disability. The government or corporates should come forward to give some job or other to her and enable her to work in a safe environment.
Particularly when she has been an outstanding athlete, every effort should be made to revive her professional career. That is the key to a happy future for Shanthi, it is suggested.