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Tuesday, Sep 17, 2019

Lost in Transition

The attempted suicide by athlete Santhi Soundararajan, stripped of her Asian Games silver after failing a 'sex test' has brought attention back to transitioned athletes, writes Ajai Masand.

india Updated: Oct 31, 2007 03:40 IST
Ajai Masand
Ajai Masand
Hindustan Times

Mianne Bagger

Q: The IOC stopped gender testing after the 2000 Sydney Olympics, then why didn't it ensure that it was also banned by the continental sports bodies like the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) and the likes? Is it laxity on the part of the IOC or the IOC itself is not sure what to do and what not to do?

Mianne: I guess that's the question we're all asking! One would assume that anything coming under the umbrella of the Olympic logo and/or brand is required to follow governance as directed by the parent organisation. National Olympic organisations would then be required to follow the same rules and procedures set forth by the IOC of course. As we have since learnt that the IOC still carries out sex testing, the OCA was in fact merely following IOC procedures. Although the IOC announced it would stop sex testing, it has maintained the 'right' to test any athlete upon reasonable suspicion.

What needs to be questioned in this instance is the procedure for maintaining confidentiality and anonymity for the athlete in question. With regards to drugs testing of athletes, people involved in these processes are (as far as I'm aware) subject to confidentiality agreements. In Santhi's case (as was reported in India newspapers), one of the officials who was privy to such test results, saw it upon himself to tell a member ---- or members ---- of the media. He had no right to do this and it should never have happened. Yet we have heard of no course of action to reprimand this person or the OCA on its failure to ensure an athlete's confidentiality. In the mean time, irreparable damage has been done to Santhi's life and her sporting career and has tragically led to her suicide attempt. This is an absolute disgrace and cannot merely be undone.

We read that Santhi has the right to appeal this decision but this should only be required if the OCA had conducted themselves within acceptable protocol. Santhi's rights as an athlete and as a human being were abused. There is nothing she has to defend or appeal, yet there is no one being held accountable for this gross injustice.

Q: Is there still any ambiguity in the minds of the IOC top bosses regarding the issue and how do you feel about this discrepancy especially when medical science has proved to the contrary?

Mianne: We can only attempt to assume what people at the IOC must be thinking. There is no doubt that there seems to be some ambiguity, but it can't be about the medical facts! It seems to be how they are going to deal with the issue. As Kristen has pointed out, they have their corporate image and brand to consider. It's easy to ignore situations when they are kept at arms length and this [gender diversity, transitioned and inter-sexed men and women] is an issue that still makes most people uncomfortable to even talk about. It is more a problem of social disease when it comes to issues of sex and gender variance.

What needs to be remembered is that the members of these governing organisations are still just people. They have the same prejudices and opinions as most other people and that also seems to influence their decision and policy-making procedures. The difference with the sporting world is that it seems to be allowed to apply such prejudices in their policy-making procedures without concern for accountability.

We've seen this time and time again amongst golf's governing bodies. Their policies are based more on personal opinions and fears more than anything else and are based least of all on science and medical fact.

The IOC made an attempt in 2004, through it's 'Stockholm Consensus on sex-reassigned athletes', to make sports more inclusive. Unfortunately, their efforts still seemed shrouded by their own prejudices and personal ignorance and lack of substantial supportive medical fact. In fact, during a conference call with Patrick Schamasch in 2006, he admitted that no extensive research was done and the final decision was based on a popular vote by their athletes' commission. The result was an incomplete and personally invasive policy targeting an already scrutinised minority in today's society.

Transitioned men and women are still seen as acceptable targets in society as if we were something less than human and deserving of scrutiny. What needs to be understood is that every variation of human birth is normal and it should be embraced. Sport has attempted to define what 'normal' is, for purposes of sports, and has excluded certain people in the process. Global organisations like the IOC need to be aware of the influence of their actions and should be leading by example rather than by operating within society's ignorance and strict stereotypes.

It would be nice if the IOC might take heed of their own Charter as this excerpt states on the IOC website:

(According to the Olympic Charter, established by Pierre de Coubertin, the goal of the Olympic Movement is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practised without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.)

The only lesson that has been taught to youth in this case is that alienating someone of difference is ok, and it was reinforced by huge support by the mass media. What Santhi has suffered is in complete contradiction with this view of the Charter, yet the IOC seems to have spared no concern at the injustice. It is also not the first time something like this has happened, but it is now that it has to stop.

Santhi did not fail a sex test, she failed to meet the IOC's definition of what constitutes female. By failing to meet that view, she was subsequently branded by the media as a male and a cheat, yet she is neither. Any other silver-medallist would be looked upon with admiration and respect and Santhi is deserving of no less. In fact, Santhi is an incredible inspiration in light of the condition she was born with, as she quite likely competes at a disadvantage to most others because of it.

Q: How do women athletes react when a transitioned athlete participates in an event? Is their any kind of bias/discrimination among officials, media and athletes towards transitioned athletes? How many times have you heard that you are getting an unfair advantage?

Mianne: People respond with the common misconceptions and stereotypes that exist and their first thought is with regards to a perceived unfair advantage. But I don't think people really know what that means. Unfair advantage --- compared to what or to who? Compared to what reference? There are some women on tour who hit the ball huge distances and it always amazes me that no one ever questions if they have an 'unfair advantage'. They were of course the concerns I experienced on tour when I first entered the professional ranks, but such fears quickly disappeared from both players and officials alike and are no longer a day-to-day issue.

The fact still remains that this is something that is nobody else's business. People would find it an outrage if they were required to expose their entire personal medical history to compete in sports, so why do they feel it is their right to know ours? The reality is that there could be many transitioned men and women around the world who are competing in competitive sports with no one aware of their pasts and that is exactly the way it should be. It is nobody else's business.

This is where human physiology in it's entirety needs to be understood. How it pertains to physical performance and the part that natural human diversity plays in it.

Q: Europe, Canada and the US are developed societies so they understand the issue, but there is a big stigma in counties like India because of ignorance of the people? What do you feel should be done to create awareness?

The truth is that these ignorances still exist in varying degrees around the world and the US has not yet been as progressive as Europe and Canada. There are many people working in the US for greater awareness and education but they also face opposition from large proportions of their society who are extremely religious. The best thing to promote awareness is ongoing education and research into gender diversity.

This is where sport plays such a key role by openly embracing natural human diversity. Sport has an obligation to address science and medical facts pertaining to physical performance and cannot merely exclude certain members of society with no substantial justification for doing so. Sport is something that all people can relate to on one level or another, and is something that all people around the world have taken part in. Sport is a wonderful vehicle for the promotion of inclusiveness and sends a loud message to the world.

Q: Do you thing the national sports federation of India (Indian Olympic Association) or the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) have not handled the matter properly because of their ignorance of the issue?

This IOC and all other Olympic governing bodies have all been aware of gender variance for decades yet have failed to act on it. It is an issue that is commonly swept under the carpet and ignored, hopefully just to go away so nobody has to deal with it. It still makes most people uncomfortable to discuss and the popular conceptions of gender variance makes it easy to dismiss and ignorance almost seems acceptable.

Q: How should an athlete cope with the stigma, especially as has happened in Santhi's case, when the entire sports fraternity turned against her?

Mianne: How do you advise someone on how to deal with having their life ripped from them after being left all but powerless by governing organisations that are powerful and not accountable for their actions? How do you advise someone that has been publicly humiliated, judged and sentenced by global media who care more about the bottom line dollar than about the lives they might be ruining. The best thing I could say to Santhi is to carry her head high and carry herself with dignity, for she has done nothing wrong. Draw on that inner strength that gained her the silver medal in the first place. That didn't come from nowhere Santhi, that came from you. It came from a drive and determination that few people have and it will serve to get you through the biggest hurdles in life. When you have been true to yourself and true to those around you, you cannot hang your head in shame.

Q: How long do you think it will take for the tide to turn, especially when you people are putting in so much of effort?

Mianne: The important thing at the moment is that the tide is turning. The wheels have well and truly been set in motion and change is inevitable. I am the first [known] transitioned woman to be competing in the professional golfing ranks and have been competing on tour for 4 years now. Kristen has achieved reinstatement in both water skiing and cycling and is working extremely hard in her bid for the 2008 Olympics.

The best we can do is to continue living by example. The more people around the world that join us in leading by example, the easier that change will become. I have collected some sayings that I live my life and one of them is by Gandhi, which states: "Be the change you wish to see in the world".

Change will not be achieved by focussing on the problem, but by living the solution.

Q: Are your efforts complemented by the efforts of people in other countries as well? Is there some kind of networking or newsletter by which you spread the word?

Mianne: We belong to the human race and everyday society, just like everyone else. We are just people, no different to anyone else. There are thousands of other men and women around the world, of all race, age and ethnic backgrounds, who play their part in creating awareness and education on all issues of diversity. The internet has probably played the most significant part in showing the true nature of human diversity in all it's various forms and to show that it is global. Human diversity is not specific to particular parts of the world.

Kristen and I have obviously been focussed on sports and it is such a wonderful avenue to create awareness and change. Our efforts will continue to spread globally, just like the efforts of all others around the world. The internet will continue to be a wonderful source of information and communication while we watch the change taking place.

Q: Do you have symposiums/meetings where you invite top athletes, IOC officials and make them aware of the whole issue?

Mianne: hhmmm, can't quite say that I'm the symposium holding kind of person! Kristen has made numerous presentations to sporting symposiums and meetings in recent years but as yet it is not the kind of thing I have participated in. Maybe it is something that I will play a more active role in, in future, but for now the pursuit of my first tournament win and the almost constant travel, keeps me busy enough!

First Published: Oct 30, 2007 21:33 IST