Over the next few weeks, the newspapers in Australia and overseas are going to be full of stories describing Paralympians as inspirational role models. Such reports might or might not be true … it just depends on the individuals involved.
As with all elite athletes, Paralympians must concern themselves, first and foremost, with their competition and personal performance. Without a performance that puts them at the top of their sport – or for Australians in the top-ten internationally – they would not have been able to represent their country at the London 2012 Paralympic Games.
This creates a pressure on the individual to perform at an elite level day in, day out over the years before selection. For some, whose performances are without peer nationally and internationally, this may be a fait accompli. For others, a qualifying performance could be decided by:
- 1/100th of a second
- having an attribute the coach needs to fill a team in goalball, wheelchair rugby or wheelchair basketball, where teams are made up of players of mixed ability.
These vagaries of selection have seen some would-be Paralympians from all around the world “cheat” – transgress the rules of competition and sportsmanship to achieve Paralympic selection.
Cheat to compete
The Paralympics are, in many ways, just like the Olympics. There’s a regime of anti-doping measures to detect performance-enhancing substances. There’s also a series of other more complex considerations (such as the classification system) which helps to achieve the Paralympic ideal of people of equal ability competing against one other.
Paralympic media releases continually feature announcements of positive tests for performance-enhancing drugs across disability groups and many sports.
This affirms that some Paralympic athletes are just as willing as some Olympic athletes to resort to drug use to assure their selection.
The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) recognises this as a significant issue and are a signatory of the World Anti-Doping Code (WADC) through which they promote a doping-free sporting environment at all levels for “the spirit of fair play”.
To ensure this anti-doping message filters to all participatory levels of Paralympic sport, the IPC and the international federations and the national Paralympic committees have developed their own IPC Anti-Doping Code.
While doping may be a high-profile and media-grabbing example of the lengths some Paralympic athletes will go to to ensure success, it is by no means the most common way of “cheating”. The Paralympic athlete classification system and processes are one of the ongoing controversial issues of the international Paralympic movement.
In their most simple form, Paralympic classification systems seek to get people of equal abilities competing against each other. But the classification system is controversial because it is not an exact science – people can underplay their level of ability.
Speaking to past Paralympic athletes, there are some who had concerns their competitors were not classified properly and that they were “cheating” by competing against other athletes of less ability as a way of ensuring success.
Classification is a highly technical process involving both medical and biomechanical assessment of athletes across the six major categories in the Paralympics:
- cerebral palsy
- vision impairment
- intellectual disability
- Les Autres (a French term for the “others”)
One of the classification embarrassments of the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games was the stripping of the gold medal from the Spanish intellectually disabled basketball team shortly after the Games concluded. It emerged that the certification processes had not been properly carried out, supervised or audited nationally or internationally. Quite simply, a number of the Spanish basketball team did not have intellectual disabilities.
Within each sport there are further classifications that led to what was known as “medal gigantism” – the creation of so many classes of event that the number of available medals is out of control.
This peaked at the 1988 Seoul Paralympic Games when there were 733 gold medals on offer and 2,208 medals in total. (Medals will be awarded in 502 events in London.)
Similarly, because of the number of classification types, there were a proliferation of world records being broken every Games. This also peaked at the Seoul Paralympics when 971 world records were broken.
The other form of “cheating” is euphemistically called “boosting”. Boosting is practised by some athletes with spinal cord injury who seek to increase their blood pressure, therefore enhancing performance.
Due to the nature of spinal cord injuries, some athletes are unable to feel parts of their body. But if the body becomes injured in areas where they don’t have any feeling, it triggers a physiological reaction that increases blood pressure – a response known as an autonomic dysreflexic reaction.
To stimulate this response, some athletes deliberately self-harm. Common boosting practices have included breaking toes, having extremely tight-fitting clothing, overfilling the bladder or, in males, trapping the testicles.
This might be extreme behaviour but it is just another example of what Paralympic athletes will engage in to be successful (see here for further info).
While the Paralympics is based on elite athletic performance and principles of fair play, this is not extended to the participation of all involved.
Recent research has shown that while the Olympics has been criticised for its lack of gendered participation by many nations and across all sports, the Paralympics has a far more critical shortage of female athletes across nations and across sports.
This gendered under-representation is further complicated by an under-representation of people with high-support needs (such as Class BC3 those with cerebral palsy) in comparison to those athletes who are independent and require no support by attendants.
In a sport where disability is front-and-centre, questions must be raised as to whether selection decisions are being made because of resource implications due to athletes having higher levels of disability. Surely this could not be the case?
So when you are watching the Olympics and being inspired by the elite athletes, spare a thought for the more complex issues of Paralympic sport and darker side of the Games that need to be addressed by the international Paralympic movement.