Olympic scandals: The revolting Spanish sham at the 2000 Sydney Paralympic Games

The Spanish team celebrates its gold medal in intellectual disability basketball at the Paralympic Games in Sydney. They were then stripped of their title after it was revealed that they had cheated. (DR/YouTube)

Watch: The biggest cheaters in the history of the Olympics

While the long history of the modern Olympic Games is peppered with all kinds of cheating scandals, the Paralympic Games, established in 1960 and reserved for athletes with disabilities, have also not been able to escape attempts at fraud. The most famous and revolting of them undoubtedly occurred during the Sydney Games in 2000.

In addition to traditional wheelchair basketball, the Paralympic Games in 2000 hosted another basketball tournament, reserved for the mentally disabled. According to the Cite source site, the Paralympic Committee had set an intellectual quotient (IQ) threshold at 70 to be considered mentally disabled and eligible to participate in the competition.

An impressive performance

The first Paralympic men’s basketball tournament for those with intellectual disabilities took place in Sydney in October 2000 and was marked by the impressive performance of the Spanish team. Victorious in all its matches by at least 15 points, the Spanish team surprised all observers, even crushing the Russian favorites in the final (87-63).

“They blew everyone off the court,” recalls Bradley Lee, member of the Australian team in this tournament, quoted by ABC News. “I suspected it, but I didn’t voice it.” It was a totally different team from the others. “We had our concerns that there may have been something going on, but we couldn’t put our finger on it.” The mystery was finally be solved in the following weeks.

The truth unveiled

The day after their victory, the Paralympic champions had the honor of appearing in Marca, one of the main Spanish sports dailies, with gold medals hanging from their necks. Following the publication, the newspaper’s editorial staff received several messages from readers claiming that they recognized some of the players, and they had no disabilities.

The deception was finally exposed with a bang in November 2000, when one of the players from the victorious team in Sydney, Carlos Ribagorda, spoke publicly. He revealed he was a journalist for the financial newspaper Capital, joined the team in 1999, and did not suffer from any intellectual disability.

A blood pressure test as a medical examination

Worse yet, the journalist confirmed on the same occasion that a total of ten players (out of twelve) on the Spanish team had faked a mental handicap to participate in the competition. According to him, this shameless cheating had been because exams were not very rigorous. As reported by the Huffington Post, Ribagorda noted that “in terms of a medical exam, he only had to have his blood pressure taken after doing six push-ups.”

During their entire Paralympic journey, most of the Spanish players pretended to have an intellectual disability. This ubiquitous situation had led to some awkward moments. “In the second half of our first game, we easily scored 30 points,” says Ribagorda, as quoted by the Huffington Post. The coach then told us, half laughing and half serious, to lower our feet a little, because otherwise it would show ...”

10 out of 12 of the gold medalists had an IQ above 70

Going even further in his accusations, Ribagorda also confirmed that at least five other athletes from the Spanish delegation, as well as several athletes of different nationalities who took part in the Paralympic Games in Sydney, in reality had “no mental or physical handicap.” These revelations could not go unanswered and the Spanish Paralympic Committee quickly opened an investigation, with overwhelming conclusions: ten of the twelve gold medalists had an IQ above 70.

As a result, the gold medals were returned and those responsible for the scandal were brought to justice. Finally, in 2013, the verdict was announced: of the 19 defendants, 18 got away with an acquittal, while Fernando Martin Vicente, president of the Spanish Sports Federation for the Mentally Disabled (Feddi) at the time of the events, was sentenced to a fine of 5,400 euros for “fraud and lies,” but above all would have to repay the 142,355 euros in subsidies paid by the Spanish State to Paralympic athletes for the Sydney Games.

People with intellectual disabilities banned from the Paralympic Games for 12 years

While taking responsibility for the cheating, the president of Feddi also maintained, during his trial, that he had only exploited a regulatory loophole: “If someone wants to cheat, it’s hard to detect. It's easy to pretend you have low intelligence.” This was a point of view visibly shared by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), which, following this scandal, purely and simply prohibited mentally disabled people from participating in the Games!

This was a decision with devastating consequences for the main stakeholders, i.e. the athletes who really suffer from a mental handicap. “I had many of our top-level athletes ringing saying, ‘I didn't cheat, I don't understand,’” explains Robyn Smith, of Sports Inclusion Australia, as cited by ABC News. “That was heartbreaking, to go from being heroes to then being kicked out of the movement.”

Ultimately, it was not until the Paralympic Games in London, in 2012, that the IPC, convinced by the evolution of methods for detecting mental disabilities, reinstated athletes with intellectual disabilities.

Watch: The countries that have been banned from the Olympics