This year, at the pandemic-delayed Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, viewers can finally watch their athletes competing across the 22 sports. The GB team have over 200 athletes taking part, but for some, the Games aren’t as easy watching.
The Games aim to “foster a welcoming environment and raise awareness of unity in diversity among citizens of the world”, and yet intellectually disabled athletes haven’t always had a warm welcome.
The story of the ‘career-ruining’ ban on intellectual impairment sports at the Paralympics is covered in a new BBC documentary, The Fake Paralympians.
Intellectually disabled athletes weren’t allowed to participate and win medals in the Paralympics until 1996. Even then, there were only a handful of events for athletes with an intellectual impairment at Atlanta 1996 – eight in total, explains Simon Maybin, producer of The Fake Paralympians.
“It was seen as a kind of experiment. Actually, there were many more events for people with a learning disability in 1992, but they were at a kind of side event in Madrid, rather than in Barcelona with the main Paralympic Games.
“There’s some disagreement about whether those events should be counted as ‘officially’ part of the Paralympics. Either way, the experiment at Atlanta 1996 was seen as a success, so there was a big increase in the number of medals available at Sydney 2000 for intellectual impairment athletes.”
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But it was this Paralympics that would ultimately lead to a ban on all intellectual impairment athletes by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC). It was a move that caused British swimmer Dan Pepper, a Paralympic hopeful at the time of the ban, to quit the sport.
“I was devastated,” Pepper wrote in a Guardian blog in 2008. “I stayed out of the pool for about a month, but then my coach persuaded me to get back in.”
The fakes that won gold
The Sydney Games included a men’s basketball event, in which eight teams of players with intellectual disabilities (ID) competed for a medal. But not all teams played fair.
The Spanish team were captained by Ray Torres, an athlete with a learning disability who had ‘found escape’ on the basketball court. When the team qualified for the 2000 Sydney Paralympics, he was one of 12 to compete.
They made it all the way to the final, where they beat Russia 87-63 to claim gold. Torres and the team are ecstatic, until a Spanish journalist publishes an article accusing three players of faking it.
“This obviously sparked an investigation,” explains Pepper, and as it turns out, only two of the medal-winning athletes were legitimately disabled.
“They got caught – which is a good thing – and they got their gold medals stripped off them,” says Pepper.
“But this then led to a full ban of people with a learning disability for nine years. And even today, we’re still not back to where we were before that.”
Finally, in 2009, people with an intellectual impairment were once again allowed by the IPC to compete in the Paralympics – provided they take ‘sports intelligence’ tests beforehand.
“There are quite a few different elements to the tests now,” says Maybin. “So, as well as general sports intelligence tests, athletes have to demonstrate that their impairment impacts their ability to perform the sport.
“Some of the sports intelligence tests are done on computers and look a bit like simple video games, but in fact are designed to measure things like reaction speed, short-term memory, and spatial ability.”
Athletes will only be eligible for taking part in intellectual impairment events if they ‘have a restriction in intellectual functioning and adaptive behaviour in which affects conceptual, social and practical adaptive skills required for everyday life”, according to the IPC. They also say that the impairment must have been present before the age of 18.
Athletes also have to meet a minimum impairment criteria for the sport they’re competing in – criteria set and judged by the committee’s classification panel.
Is it enough to prevent future fake Paralympians?
“For the BBC show, I spoke to Professor Jan Burns, who’s the head of eligibility for the international federation for intellectual disability sport, Virtus,” says Pepper.
“She told me that the tests are hard to cheat because if somebody is trying to cheat, their profile across the tests looks a bit strange.”
A lasting impact on ID sports
The ban ran across the 2004 and 2008 Games, and its impacts are still being felt by the sporting community.
“In a nutshell, it ruined my swimming career,” says Pepper.
“I missed out on two Paralympic Games, which were when I was at my prime. At my prime, I was untouchable in my events.
“I was one of the fortunate athletes that managed to make London 2012, but in the swimming world I was kind of walking out with my Zimmer frame.”
Pepper says the ban meant he had missed out on his best chance at winning a medal. But the ban also meant there were athletes like him around the world who didn’t have the opportunity to showcase what they could do.
This year’s Games
Now that intellectually impaired athletes are returning to the Games – though, not all sports have been reinstated – Pepper and Maybin will be watching out for their favourites.
“There’s a few swimmers I’m looking out for. Tom Hamer, because I was around at the start of him getting onto the Great Britain team.”
Pepper has also been watching his good friend Ellie Simmonds compete. “She came to our wedding and everything,” he says. “She competes in the S6 class and obviously she’s already got lots of medals to her name.”
For Maybin, basketball has always been one of his favourite sports.
“It’s a shame there’s still no intellectual impairment basketball, but great that GB have teams in both the men’s and women’s competitions for wheelchair basketball.”
The Fake Paralympians is available on BBC Sounds. Listen now.