Every four years, the Summer Olympics capture the world’s attention. And every four years, athletes with various disabilities compete in a companion event called the Summer Paralympics. For much of the Paralympics history, one needed a physical disability in order to qualify for the events. But for the 1996 Games in Atlanta, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) began allowing those with “intellectual disabilities” (to use the IPC’s term) to compete. This change allowed the Paralympics to host a wider range of events and, of course, opened the Games’ doors to more participants.
One of those new participants was a Spanish basketball player named Carlos Ribagorda, who joined Spain’s Paralympic team in 1998 or 1999. By the end of the 2000 Paralympic Games in Sydney, Ribagorda could add the word “champion” to his bio; he and the Spanish team took gold. And a few weeks later, Ribagorda updated his biography once more. He added the term “undercover journalist,” which he was, and removed the phrase “intellectual disabled,” which he wasn’t.
Ribagorda claimed that he was able to play for the basketball team, even though he lacked the disability the team claimed he had. Using himself as evidence, Ribagoard, in a publication called Capital (via the BBC), accused the Spanish Federation for Mentally Handicapped Sports (FEDDI) of widespread cheating: “Of the 200 Spanish athletes at Sydney at least 15 had no type of physical or mental handicap – they didn’t even pass medical or psychological examinations. The federation didn’t hesitate in signing up athletes without any type of handicap.” Further, Ribagorda claimed, of the twelve members of the basketball team, only two were truly handicapped. And Ribagorda claimed that, for his part, pulling off the ruse was particularly easy: the reason he was able to participate despite the fact that he never passed the “medical or psychological examinations” is because those tests were never administered to him.
Ribagorda’s claims were confirmed after an investigation and the fallout was immediate and extreme. First, the Spanish Paralympic basketball team was stripped of its medals. Then, the chair of Spain’s Paralympic committee (who also happened to be vice-chair of FEDDI globally), Fernando Martin Vincente, resigned. And, perhaps drastically, the IPC ruled that athletes would no longer be able to qualify for future events by exhibiting an intellectual disability. As the defrocked Martin Vincente claimed, “the process of psychological evaluation is very difficult because there are no amputations nor obvious physical defect. If someone wants to cheat, it’s difficult to detect. It’s easy to pretend you have little intelligence, but the opposite is difficult.”
While athletes with intellectual disabilities (and with no physical disabilities) were not allowed to participate in either the 2004 Games in Athens nor 2008 Beijing Games, the IPC revisited the decision in 2009 and reversed course again, Athletes with intellectual disabilities were (and, as of this writing, still are) able to undergo a series of what the BBC termed “sports intelligence” tests and, with an appropriate score, may participate in IPC-sanctioned events.
From the Archives: Land of the Rising Gorilla: The accidental basketball mascot.
Related: There’s a really good story about cheating in the Paralympics in my first book.