Scott Stinson: It takes a particular lack of shame to fake a disability at the Paralympics
Category: SportsVia: hallux • 2 weeks ago • 4 comments
By: Scott Stinson
Denys Dubrov has won two medals at the Paralympics in Tokyo, a gold and a relay bronze in the pool, which for many athletes would constitute a haul. For Dubrov, a 32-year-old Ukrainian, it’s a bit of a step back. He won eight medals at Rio 2016, where he was both a breakout star and a subject of scrutiny.
Dubrov was an elite able-bodied swimmer and has no visible disability, but has been classified with a neurological impairment and became a Paralympian in the run up to the Rio Games. He’s part of a Ukraine team that is dominant in the pool; his country infamously swept the podium in the men’s 200-metre individual medley in a race that was not particularly well received by the watching crowd. Canada’s Benoit Huot, a Paralympic legend himself, finished fourth in that race and joked that he was the best in the world, not including Ukraine. Huot retired with 21 Paralympic medals to his credit, and has said that the emergence of unbeatable rivals was at least part of the reason why he stopped competing.
Dubrov’s case isn’t unique. Para athletes from many countries and in many sports have been accused of manipulating their classification, the process that determines their level of disability and subsequent competitive eligibility, most famously with a Spanish basketball team that won a gold medal in an intellectually disabled class at Sydney 2000 but was almost entirely full of players with no impairment. (An undercover journalist was on the team.)
It is one of the conundrums of the Paralympics. A competition that was developed for admirable reasons — to give war veterans with disabilities a chance to still pursue athletic careers and be an inspiration to those like them — also has the potential for exploitation, a problem that has grown as the Paralympics have grown, into a big event with lots of money, sponsorships and media attention at stake.
Stephanie Dixon, a Paralympic medallist and Canada’s chef de mission in Tokyo, said in an interview last year that the controversy over what’s known as “class manipulation” can sometimes be overblown and that equal levels of functionality from athlete to athlete are unrealistic.
“Are the Olympics a level playing field from event to event?” she said, noting that someone like Usain Bolt had a tremendous advantage over shorter rivals. “High-performance sport is not fair. There is human variation and we will never get rid of that.”
But Dixon also said it can still be a problem. The classification system is also essentially an honour system: athletes are tested by a volunteer panel to determine the degree of their disability, so someone could ratchet down their performance, appear less functional, and be placed in a lower class. This is the Paralympic version of doping. There have been stories of athletes doing intense workouts before a test, or taking a cold shower to tighten muscles — effectively doing the opposite of what they would normally do to prepare for a competition.
Canada’s Priscilla Gagne, who won a silver medal in Tokyo for her first Paralympic podium, is blind, but sometimes competes against judoka who have only partial visual impairment. Usually the level of impairment is high, but not always.
“Some of them can see ridiculously well and are, you know, corrupt, and pretending that they are blind yet they have their driver’s licence in their home country,” she said in an interview.
Gagne says it’s sometimes obvious just from watching a match, where one athlete needs a referee to help them to the right position on the mat, while the other will walk straight to the centre. “It’s no secret,” she says.
The pool is where most of the controversy has been more out in the open. American Jessica Long, a double amputee who has won 25 Paralympic medals, has pushed for stricter testing and classification to curb a problem that she says is “destroying” her sport. Champions from the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States have all been accused of swimming under the wrong classification over the cycle leading up to Tokyo.
Canadian Katarina Roxon, who has so far won two medals in Tokyo to add to the gold she won in Rio, said in an interview that the issue isn’t limited to one country or team. “I mean, it’s everywhere,” says Roxon, 28, who is missing her left arm below the elbow. “There are a few girls in my class who I don’t think should be in my class, but I can’t control that. All I can control is how much effort I put in my training, what I eat, how I sleep, all of that.”
This is, Dixon said, all any athlete can do, especially once a Paralympics is underway. Worry about the others on the starting block isn’t going to do any good. “At the end of the day, for the athletes, that wasted energy is not going to help your performance,” Dixon said.
“I try not to think too much about it,” said Roxon. “I just have to give myself the best chance I can.”
The International Paralympic Committee has said it will review classification criteria later this year, as it does after every Paralympic cycle. But while there is hope that some gaps will be tightened, it’s also true that someone who is determined to underperform during a test will be tough to catch. Every athlete, able-bodied or otherwise, has good and bad days.
In the end, the best hope for preventing Paralympic doping would be that athletes wouldn’t do it. It takes a particular lack of shame to fake a disability.
Gagne says that despite that, it still happens. “To us,” she says, “it’s crazy.”