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Why would you DO that? Faking disability at the Paralympics

British Prime Minister David Cameron with a Paralympic athlete in London this year. EPA/Andy Rain

People pretending to be disabled in order to compete in the Paralympics or Special Olympics is the fodder of many a bad-taste joke. There have even been movies such as The Ringer and an episode of South Park that pivot on this very notion.

But the sad reality is that such deception has taken place - and possibly continues now at the London 2012 Paralympics. It is also something I have witnessed first-hand.

Many will remember the great fiasco when it was found that the Spanish Paralympic Basketball team playing in the “Classification 11: Athletes with intellectual impairment” category had ten players with no mental disability and only two with a mental disability.

This made front page news in the Spanish press, led to a number of Spanish sport officials resigning and the Spanish players having to return to Spain in disguises. The ensuing disgrace not only affected basketball but all sports with this category of player.

The response by the Paralympic governing body was quick. Definitions were tightened, categories reduced and many potential competitors found they could not meet the revised definitions at later games. All this was a consequence of officialdom’s fear of losing future government funding by not getting the required success.

How can it happen?

I was a naïve new international table tennis umpire at the 2000 Paralympics. I was given clear instructions on how to deal with athletes with an intellectual impairment.

It was made clear to me that players underwent rigorous assessments in their home countries to ensure they were categorised correctly based on their level of impairment.

Certificates from qualified specialists were supplied assuring us athletes were correctly graded. Therefore it came as a shock when the following series of events occurred.

We were housed in the Olympic village both before and during the Games. One day I boarded a bus heading out to the venues to umpire and sat behind two table tennis players.

They spoke both in Spanish and English during the trip and talked about their time in Sydney and how well they were going. One pulled out a calculator and did an analysis of his games to date and strategies for dealing with upcoming competitors and future travel plans. They then noticed my presence and stopped talking.

When I arrived at the venue I was told I would be umpiring players with relatively severe intellectual handicaps. It was a shock to me when one of two Spanish players I had sat behind walked up to the table and began to hit up. It appeared that between his time on the bus and the venue he had undergone a severe transformation.

No longer the bright, alert player I had seen earlier, I was now faced with someone struggling to put words together and who had difficulty following instructions. After winning his match the Spanish player went off to find his friend. I spoke to another Australian umpire who remarked that he also had a funny feeling something was not right when he umpired the other Spanish player.

Taking action?

We raised our concerns to a leading table tennis official. We were painstakingly reacquainted with the rigorous assessments those with intellectual impairment went through. We felt it unwise to push our concerns further and never umpired another match involving these players.

I must confess that after the basketball fiasco was uncovered I did regret not pushing my concerns a lot harder. But then I was new to such major international events and felt that I had done all I could.

Cheating has consequences – in this case I wonder which deserving athletes missed out on the opportunity to represent their country. I also wonder how many officials, acting in good faith, have also been exploited by this drive by cheats for recognition and greater government funding.

The lure of significant government funding can make sporting bodies behave badly. The question is why does this happen and what should be done about it? Rewards for success such as receiving an Olympic gold medal can be huge, both for the athletes and their sporting bodies.

The need to secure funding?

It should be no surprise that government money flows to those sports bodies that achieve high-profile success. On the surface this appears to be a reasonable position because sports funding is always tight and has to be used to achieve the best returns.

But is this really the best way to promote participation in sport?

The incentive to cheat to receive more government funding is great enough for major sports but it does not stop at able athletes.

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