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The Biggest Scandal in Paralympic History

By Amy Saad

It’s the 2000 Summer Paralympics in Sydney, Spain did incredibly well in the men’s intellectual disability basketball games and made it to the finals. They are up by 24 points and about to beat Russia to take the Gold. Needless to say, the whole of Spain and journalists are rushing to write their articles about the latest winners. The 12 members of the team became testaments to grit, courage, and diligence, moreover, national treasures. As they stood on the podium with the Spanish national anthem playing, it almost seemed perfect. However, it wasn’t. It was all a lie- their stories, the victory, the national anthem, and the gold medals.

Paralympics are a very special and valuable global event. A symbol of triumph over hard work celebrating athletes of all kinds. Unlike the Olympics, athletes bring each other up despite which team they are from, there are no real losers.

Doping remains a notorious problem with the Paralympics as it is much harder to police banned drugs. Many athletes use performance-enhancing drugs to help treat their physical disabilities. In the 2000 Sydney Games, a new doping control program was implemented where Paralympic athletes were required to undergo out-of-competition testing. Which worked great, it caught 14 participants and saved the weightlifting competition from unfair advantages.

But what if an athlete desired to be disadvantaged? How would you police that? Who would be so morally degenerate to do that?

Fernando Martinez Vicente, the president of the Spanish Federation of Sports People with Intellectual Disabilities, was enticed by the rewards the Spanish government granted to medal winners. So enticed by these rewards, that he decided one year he will enter a team guaranteed to win. Who would know that the team with intellectual disabilities aren’t actually intellectually disabled? That way they can win the gold medal and the government incentives are theirs. They can keep the organisation afloat for the foreseeable future and then enter people with intellectual disabilities. A classic case of defending immoral behaviour for the greater good. Ten out of the twelve-man team were not actually disabled. In order for them to qualify as a participant of the Intellectual Disability Basketball Event, each player is required to have an IQ of no more than 75. This required all non-intellectually disabled players to purposely fail a series of intelligence tests while making it look authentic to avoid suspicion.

So how did the media find out about the scam? Carlos Ribagorda was one of the ten recruited players in the scam. A few weeks after the closing ceremony, he sent his medal back to the Paralympic headquarters as well as his team kit. Perhaps his conscience had gotten the best of him? Perhaps not, Carlos Ribagorda was an undercover investigative journalist who planned on giving away the whole operation. He revealed many insider experiences of the scam, “there were five months of training with not a single disabled person insight. The two genuinely disabled players came from outside Madrid.” Once the team began the games in Sydney, the wins became obvious. In the first match, they were up 30 points by halftime where their coach told them to slow down, avoiding suspicion. And long story short, back to the medals, flag, and journalists.

Back home in Spain, what should've been moments of nationalism quickly turned to people recognising the players in the photos. After this, the whole scheme began to unravel, officials advised players to wear sunglasses, hats and grow beards. However, after they landed in Spain, Carlos Ribagorda published the exclusive which gave it all away. 2 weeks later, the team was officially disqualified and forced to return the gold medals. The IPC announced that they would officially suspend all events involving intellectual disabilities; this was not lifted until 2009. In 2013, Fernando Martin Vicente was found guilty of fraud and forgery, fined 5,400 euros as well as ordered to return the 150,000 euros that he received from sponsorships due to the team's victory. But the 10 non-disabled participants walked away free of charge.

In later interviews Carlos Ribagorda explained the teams’ attitude during the medal ceremony, knowing everything was a product of cheating, “it was a false medal…a false national anthem… Nobody really wanted to talk about it afterwards”. The saddest thing with this story is that winning was not enjoyable for the team because they knew their victory was a lie. Instead of a genuine victory, they robbed teams that were actually battling hard mental disabilities. It's true, a medal does shine brightest when it’s won fairly. The infamous team of cheaters in the Sydney Paralympic games will forever have their names attached to this event, even Carlos Ribagorda


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1 Comment

Avery Benbow
Avery Benbow
Sep 13, 2021

A very fascinating and well written article. I had no idea about any of this!

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