Speaking from personal experience, the classification system that is place in Paralympic sport is an absolute mine field, as I competed in 3 different sport throughout my 10 years career. I could tell you why someone is in that particular classification in a sport I did, but couldn’t do the same if it was the same disability in a different sport and that is probably why it is to complex of system.
The Paralympics are organized around a complex classification system. The goal is to ensure fair competition between athletes of comparable ability. Athletes are first grouped into three broad categories according to their impairment—visual, physical or intellectual—and then broken into smaller classes in an attempt to ensure competitive balance.
“It’s similar to weight classifications in wrestling,” says David Legg, a professor of physical education and recreation studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary, and a former president of the Canadian Paralympics Committee. “We’re trying to make our groupings as broad as possible, but still fair, so that we can incorporate as many different people with different disabilities.”
However, this classification system also creates opportunities for athletes, whether intentionally or not to misclassified. At the turn of this century Spain dominated intellectual disability basketball. Within a span of just two years, the Spanish national team won the world championship (Brazil 1998), the Copa Ibérica (Portugal ’99), and the European championship (Poland ’99).
The team capped its run with gold at the 2000 Paralympic Games in Sydney, where it was undefeated in five games, winning by an average of 36.4 points. It was later discovered, however, that the 1998 team included four players who had no disability at all. The 1999 team had nine, and by Sydney, 10 out of 12 players were ringers.
Why? “Sin medallas, no hay dinero,” basketball team director Eduardo García said at the time. Without medals there is no money. The Spanish delegation to the 2000 Games had raked in $8.3 million, including $2.7 million from Telefónica, a communications firm; $1.4 million from ONCE, a Spanish foundation for the visually impaired; and $1.4 million from the Spanish sports council.
Fernando Martín Vicente, president of FEDDI, the Spanish federation of intellectual disability sports, sought out little known able-bodied athletes from rec leagues to fill his rosters. His mistake was recruiting Carlos Ribagorda—unknown to Vicente, Ribagorda was a journalist. Ribagorda brought the scheme tumbling down with an exposé in the December 2000 issue of the Spanish magazine Capital.
Intellectual disability sports, which debuted at the Atlanta Games in 1996, were dropped from the next two Paralympics and ID basketball has not returned. In October 2013, Vicente was found guilty of fraud by a court in Madrid, fined $6,200, and ordered to return over $160,000 in government subsidies.
Even now, a decade and a half after the Spanish case, suspicions remain that not all athletes are playing fair. “We have people in sitting volleyball who have played beach volleyball for 15 years,” says Katie Holloway. “Somehow they are now Paralympians playing sitting volleyball.”
Brazilian Fred Souza, who played on the FIVB beach volleyball world tour between 1995 and 2006, and in the AVP beach volleyball league between ’00 and ’12, was an alternate for both Brazil’s indoor and beach volleyball teams at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Souza, who is 6’ 7″, is now classified as minimally disabled, a designation that can apply to a player with, say, a missing toe or a severe ACL injury.
Each team is allowed only one minimally disabled athlete on the court at a time. But in some cases, one person can make a world of difference. Souza won seven points in Brazil’s gold-medal-winning victory over the U.S. in sitting volleyball at last year’s Parapan Am Games in Toronto. His 75% spike success rate led both teams by more than 30%. This doesn’t mean that Souza does not have a long-term chronic injury that prevents him from playing able-bodied volleyball, but his case has brought up questions of fair play.
Much like the Olympics, the Paralympics have not been immune to doping scandals. Most recently, Russia’s Paralympic team was barred from competing in Rio because of its participation in a state-sponsored doping program, a harsher punishment than was imposed on the country’s Olympic team last month.
There are performance-enhancing techniques that are unique to Paralympians. In “boosting”—autonomic dysreflexia (AD)—athletes with spinal cord injuries at or above the sixth thoracic vertebra, roughly nipple height, can raise their heart rate and blood pressure by intentionally injuring themselves.
Signals from pain (clamping a catheter, sitting on a thumbtack, or even breaking a toe) travel high enough up the spinal cord to trigger a physiological fight-or-flight response, but the pain itself is never registered in the brain. So, the athlete never feels the injury. It is a simple, brutal, way to gain an edge, though it can have serious side effects, including stroke and death.
Robert Burnham, a clinical professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Alberta, intentionally induced AD in eight elite quadriplegic wheelchair racers in a 1993 study, published in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine. He found that boosting could improve race times over a 7.5-kilometer course by 9.7%.
Boosting was banned by the IPC in 1994, but in a small, anonymous survey in 2009, 10 of 60 respondents with spinal cord injuries above T6 said they had intentionally induced autonomic dysreflexia to boost performance. One person said he boosted all the time during national and international competitions.
Nichols, whose spinal injury is too low to even consider boosting, says she has heard rumours of athletes using the tactic but doesn’t know anyone who has. “It’s terrible—but from what I understand it helps their performance,” she says.
Boosting can be detected by measuring an athlete’s blood pressure immediately before competition. “When your blood pressure is too high, and you do not have a clinical record of hypertension, you will be disqualified,” says Peter Van de Vliet, the medical and scientific director of the IPC.
“[But] when it happens, it does not necessarily mean that the athlete did it on purpose, that it was intentional.” Because these athletes do not feel pain in the lower half of their bodies, they could accidentally induce AD.
The IPC has never caught anyone intentionally boosting. Athletes randomly tested in Beijing in 2008 (37) and London in 2012 (41) all had blood pressure readings below the systolic limit of 180 mm Hg. However, on May 3 the IPC announced that the rules for Rio would be tightened, dropping the maximum to 160 mm Hg.
If Olympians will push their bodies to the breaking point, so will Paralympians. “We aren’t going to the Paralympics to participate,” says Nichols, who will look to add to her wheelchair basketball and alpine skiing medals in sprint kayaking in Rio.
If Olympians will forgo common sense and put their personal lives on hold in the pursuit of winning, so will Paralympians. “We’re going [to the Games] to win, “ she says, “and a gold medal means just as much to somebody without legs as it does to an able-bodied competitor.” If Olympians will bend and break the rules in search of fame and success, so too will Paralympians.
In a world of superheroes, there must also be super villains.
PS: If you liked this blog, I did an earlier blog post at the time when they were talking about whether they were going to ban the Russian athletes from the Olympics..
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This article was originally published as Paralympics a source of inspiration, advanced technology and (yes) doping.