We know women have been fighting for their rights for some time; the right to be respected, the right to be paid fairly, the right to have a choice about what happens to their bodies, even the right to vote. Yet despite all the victories women have achieved in the process of “rebranding” the image of women around the world, there are still places where women are seen as less-than-second-class citizens. Even a world-class champion runner like Santhi Soundarajan can be destroyed if she doesn’t measure up to some archaic standard of what a woman should be. There are so many crises in the world for women that crisis management is a must for the ladies of celebrity.
I couldn’t believe my eyes as I lay on my bed watching Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. He told the unnerving story of women who couldn’t compete in professional sports any more because they had been accused of being men. Not steroids. Not performance-enhancement drugs. No payments under the table. Accusations of “being a man” were the way some officials in sports were ruining the careers of great women athletes.
During Gumbel’s report, two Indian women spoke anonymously from a dark room and told reporters that this world-class runner had to be a man. She couldn’t possibly be this talented. She couldn’t possibly be this strong. One woman said, “She’s not married and she has no children.” Can you tally up how many strong women athletes are unmarried and without children? The answer is probably thousands upon thousands. Competing for a living is demanding, and motherhood will happen if and when a woman is ready to have a family.
The Indian Olympic Association publicly humiliated Santhi with a test stating that she was not genetically a woman. She has abnormal levels of testosterone in her system, which they believe gave her a competitive advantage over other female competitors. Santhi is a little woman and weighs 141 pounds. She is small compared to many of the other athletes she competes against who have longer legs, and she has lost to other female athletes as well.
So why Santhi? Because Santhi couldn’t defend herself. She didn’t have a savvy staff of P.R. professionals who could create a crisis management plan to ward off the media attacks she faced. Being splashed all over the media on an international scale has a way of becoming daunting really quickly. If Santhi had a crisis management team in place, they could have helped her research solutions and provide a defense against the attack. Her brand was being destroyed because she was a good athlete, not because she was a man. It was being destroyed because she was exceptional; she had a gift for running given to her by birthright and showcased to the world.
What made it worse is that she’s a woman from an underprivileged area in India who worked her way to the top. She was a champion movies are made about. She became a runner because her mother told her to “run to school every day to cut down the time of her walk.” She kept running until she was in the Olympics. A real crisis management team could have helped her tell her story and given her a voice in a world shouting “fraud.”
Think about how many endorsement deals she has lost because of this outrageous declaration against her womanhood. How many kids and families could she have helped where she is from with her star power as a sports spokesperson with a voice on an international stage?
Unfortunately, she suffered like many women who have no real power to fight against the media. Until she was allowed to compete again in 2010, she worked as a bricklayer in the village where she is from, the devastating result of a crisis that hadn’t been managed properly to protect her brand and public image. A crisis management team is key for female athletes today on an international stage because the haters really hate to see stars shine.