See if you can pick where the feeling of national pride might fall away just a bit.
Your national basketball team is going gangbusters, sweeping all opposition aside on its way to Olympic gold.
As it happens, these sportsmen are in the intellectual disability section of the 2000 Sydney Paralympics, where competitors are required to have a measured IQ of under 70. You're still, surely, feeling pretty darned patriotically proud and impressed.
But then, amid the ranks of these heroic performers disporting themselves on TV and in the press, you recognise your lawyer, engineer, or fellow university student.
The notorious fakery of the almost exclusively mentally sound, if morally bankrupt, Spanish basketball team was emphatically exposed after the event by a whistleblowing journalist among its ranks, though by then enough people back home had become suspicious after recognising familiar faces that exposure was surely inevitable.
The ringleader and former president of the Spanish Federation of Sports for the Intellectually Disabled, Fernando Martin Vincente, has at last appeared before the courts to be fined just [Euro]5400 (NZ$8800) and ordered to pay back government subsidies. The scandal also involved some track and field athletes, table tennis players and swimmers.
Let's be honest about our reactions. It's a bit funny. What may have started as a free-holiday lark, albeit in bad taste, on behalf of some participants, became increasingly farcical under the cynical sponsorship-seeking connivance of Spanish officialdom. There was even some ardent halftime locker-room pleading from basketball coaches for their egotistical players to rein in the scoring because the margins were looking suspicious. Then, fearful of the reaction back home, some returned with freshly acquired beards, sunglasses and hats.
But the laughter must surely stop when we consider the seriousness of what followed. The scandal did show how lax the testing criteria was, to the extent that the International Paralympic Committee suspended all official sporting activities involving an intellectual disability. So athletes worldwide were denied their legitimate place in the next two Olympics. Nothing funny about that.
It's worth remembering that an honourable figure in the testing improvements that led to their reintegration by the time the London Paralympics came around was Professor Jan Burns of Canterbury University, a central player in the development of a classification system that measured the impact of an athletes' impairment on sports performance.
This was about more than testing being sophisticated enough to find out the fakers. It also corrected the rather empty-headed assumptions from the 1996 and 2000 events that intellectual disabilities always impaired an athlete's sporting abilities. Not so. Autistic table-tennis players, for instance, aren't necessarily at any disadvantage at all. (You're thinking Forrest Gump now, aren't you?)
The testing had to be precise enough to determine how the disability was truly relevant to the sport including not only reaction time and spatial perception, but also memory, tactical capacity and the ability to recalibrate to correct mistakes. There are reasons it took years and years.
But let's acknowledge the progress. Much as it's true that Vincente should have had some collegial company when he stood in the dock, the most significant issue is not the adequacy of the penalties. A regime is now in place to enable intellectually disabled Paralympians to look their physically challenged counterparts, and Olympians generally, squarely in the eye.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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