The Scummiest Cheating Scandal in the History of Sports
Nobody has a completely perfect track record when it comes to cheating. Everyone’s sneaked a few bucks from the bank in Monopoly when nobody was looking, had a quick glance at all their options in a Choose Your Own Adventure book to make sure they didn’t die or absolutely sworn their foot didn’t cross a line while knowing it did. It’s part of life.
But there’s the everyday luck-pushing that’s integral to a lot of games, and then there’s being a total, giant bastard. In Spain, the people in charge of putting the intellectually disabled basketball team together for the 2000 Paralympic Games in Sydney were very much in the latter camp.
The Paralympics are, of course, similar to the Olympic games (and happen directly after them) but feature disabled athletes. “Disabled” covers a huge variety of conditions, and pitting athletes against one another appropriately is an incredibly complex, constantly evolving process. Some events are more affected by certain disabilities than others — at the crudest way of putting it, a blind weightlifter is less disadvantaged by their disability than a sprinter missing a foot — and there are different gradations of competition for physical, sensory and intellectual disabilities so that a competition can be as fair as possible. Experts have carefully worked out exactly where to draw the lines so that, for instance, two wheelchair fencers with spinal injuries who are competing against one another are as evenly matched as they can be.
And yet somehow, in 2000, a team of intellectually disabled basketball players just weren’t. The whole 12-man squad featured just two disabled athletes. The rest of the team was made up of basketball enthusiasts from Madrid and the surrounding area who wanted a free trip to Australia.
And they’d have gotten away with it, if not for a few hiccups. Firstly, they won gold. They weren’t meant to — halfway through their first game in Sydney, they were told to slow down after amassing a too-conspicuous 30-point lead — but, competitiveness being what it is, they did. Their victory meant their pictures went around the world, and various members of the squad were recognized as not only not being intellectually disabled, but as being good basketball players, too. They were all immediately advised to grow beards and wear hats and sunglasses for their return to Spain in order to be less identifiable.
The other hiccup? Among their number was a journalist, Carlos Ribagorda, who blew the whistle on the whole thing shortly after the tournament was over, returning his medal. He had been invited to be part of the team due to his basketball prowess, and spent five months training with exclusively able-bodied teammates. He and his teammates were recruited by an official letter, and had competed in other tournaments on the way to the Paralympics. Ribagorda alleged that it wasn’t limited to basketball, and that members of the track and field, table tennis and swimming teams had also competed fraudulently. (In total, Spain won 107 medals within the tournament.)
The entire operation was found by a court — over a decade later — to have been “devised and executed” by Fernando Martín Vicente, head of Spain’s Paralympic committee. Vicente was the head of the National Association of Special Sports as well, and mysteriously became enormously wealthy over the years as the charity brought a lot of money in, two things several investigations in the decade prior had failed to find concrete evidence of a link between. He paid a fine while denying all wrongdoing, claiming he was far too important and too high-up to have paid attention to individual people. He wrote a letter to the BBC in 2021 insisting he was innocent, asking, “How was it done? Who encouraged it? What doctors or professionals lent themselves to such a thing? Sincerely, I don’t know.”
Assuming Vicente is responsible — which seems to be largely the consensus among everyone but him — why would someone do such a thing? It’s such a bastard move and extraordinarily offensive in so many ways. The Farrelly Brothers made a film starring Johnny Knoxville, 2005’s The Ringer, with a similar concept (except based around the Special Olympics rather than the Paralympics), and it was seen as a bad-taste low point (despite the film itself being surprisingly good-natured and sensitive, featuring an impressive amount of differently-abled performers and leading to co-star Eddie Barbanell appearing in Jackass 3D). And again, this was real life, a plot put together by a millionaire, not a charming underdog.
Vicente was actually responsible for intellectually disabled athletes being in the Paralympics in the first place, having campaigned for it tirelessly, and had perhaps gotten a bit full of himself, determined to cement his place as a pioneer by leading Spain to as many medals as possible. As ways of pissing away your legacy go, it’s pretty irreversible.
While Vicente accepting the fine absolved the members of the squad from any charges, the fallout from the scandal was incredibly unfortunate. Not only did a bunch of talented disabled athletes who were beaten by Spain feel justifiably ripped off, they also found themselves barred from future competitions — the intellectual disability category was removed from the 2004 and 2008 Paralympics in the wake of the revelations about Spain’s skulduggery as it was seen as too hard to police. Not a lot of athletes have four sets of games in them, so many Paralympic careers were obliterated. (ID athletes, as they’re termed, returned to the Paralympics in 2012.)
Both of the genuinely intellectually disabled members of the Spanish squad had to hand back their medals, too, disgraced by the actions of others. One of them, captain Ramón Torres, had even raised concerns about the players being brought on but been persuaded everything was above board.
All in all, a regrettable, avoidable incident for everyone concerned. Interestingly, though, the Paralympics continue to be a source of drama when it comes to accusations of cheating. Athletes have been accused of exaggerating their impairments in order to compete against more severely disabled opponents, and some whose disabilities came through injury have been accused of understating how much they’ve recovered. In a lot of ways it’s vastly more complicated than the able-bodied Olympics, where it’s a simple case of the strongest or fastest winning. Everyone’s impairments are unique, and drawing an objective line that says whether someone is or isn’t “disabled enough” is obviously deeply problematic.
But not as problematic as what the 2000 Spanish Paralympic basketball team did, because fucking hell.