At the elite level many only compete in sport to win, it’s not about the taking part that counts it’s playing to win. Never has this been better documented than in the recent series The Last Dance about Michael Jordan and the 6 NBA Championships he won with the Chicago Bulls. In the upcoming series of blogs, we delve into the world where the will to win was so strong in some it took them beyond what was legal.
Cheating to win.
The Sydney Olympics in 2000 was the first year Basketball for the Intellectually Disabled featured as an event, 8 teams competed for gold with the Spanish group coming out on top. Their first game against Portugal got off to a flying start, leading by 30 at half-time, their coach’s team talk was “stop playing so well or they’ll know you’re not disabled”. That’s right, 10 out of the 12 players in this Spanish squad had no intellectual disability. Even after ‘letting up’ in the second half they still cruised to victory by 15 points, each game after that they won by 56, 67, 30 and in the final beat Russia by 24 points.
So how did a team made up of high quality recreational and semi-pro athletes come to win the Paralympic Games?
The idea came from Fernando Martin Vicente, the President of Spain’s Federation for Mentally Disabled Sports (FEDDI), who invited various athletes to train as part of the team, because the idea came from the top it made the cover-up much easier. One of the athletes recruited was Carlos Ribagorda, a journalist for a Spanish newspaper, he said at no-point during the trials and training for the games was he tested for any intellectual disability. In fact, the only test of any kind was a blood pressure test after completing 6 press ups. Forms for each player were forged by those at the top, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) who govern the sport had very simple processes and each country was in charge of their own eligibility.
Ribagorda saw the opportunity to go along and break the story after the Olympics, some might argue this in itself is a selfish act, to prevent other nations from their medals to gain a story out of it. However, without him justice may never have been served. He kept a detailed account of the recruitment, training prior to the event and the coach’s speeches throughout the tournament. It was such a compelling account it allowed the case to go to trial. It took 14 years for the president of FEDDI to be found guilty, he was ordered to return the £150,000 sponsorship income and was fined 5400 euros, all the players were acquitted of any wrongdoing.
So why did they want to fake disability?
The players very much undermined the importance of the event, some stated it was a free trip to Australia, others enjoyed winning and it felt good to win, some were drawn by the prize money, splitting £200k between the group of 12. As for President Vicente, he was a businessman and looking to cash in lucrative sponsorship deals from the win.
Winning the gold medal was their eventual downfall, following the gold medal a photo of the team was published in Spain’s sports newspaper, many people started to recognise the players. The deceit didn’t stop there, the players were ordered to grow beards, and buy hats and sunglasses to hide their identity upon their return to Madrid Airport.
For Ribagorda the guilt was too great, he and a few other players mailed their team kit, gold medal and £150 spending money to the IPC headquarters before the story was published. Although the damage was done, Russia were also found to have fielded ineligible Basketball players, Spain also had a swimmer caught. Due to the difficulty of testing for an invisible impairment the IPC decided to ban Intellectually Disabled Participants from competition for the 2004 and 2008 games, devastating many genuine Paralympians, thankfully an overhaul of the assessment process allowed their return at London 2012.
The next blog post in this series will discuss how a sports icon reputation became tarnished due to a doping scandal, with the result being him being disqualified of all his titles!
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