Difficulties in distinguishing disabled athletes

October 30, 2013


By Mark Brade – Thompson Rivers University 2L JD Student

Within elite sporting events the necessity of ensuring athletes are in fair competition with one another has led to the creation of anti-doping programs, qualification scores, and other means of protecting the integrity of sport. The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) is faced with an unusual additional challenge; the difficult task of quantifying the disabilities of athletes in order to ensure balanced competition. Ensuring achievement of the equality and participatory standards expected of an international sporting event is a daunting task when consideration is given to the spectrum of possible impairment within just a single disability and the IPC has struggled to meet these obligations on an ongoing basis.

Managing an admissions system for athletes with intellectual disabilities raises particular challenges and this may explain why the category did not exist until the 1996 Atlanta Paralympic Games. The next Summer Paralympics to take place, at Sydney in 2000, saw the failure of the IPC to adequately protect the integrity of competition when only 2 out of 12 players on the Spanish basketball team were disabled. The president of the Spanish Federation for Mentally Handicapped Sports (FEDDI) had arranged for these players to avoid testing in order to dominate the competition, which they did by winning the gold medal. Once discovered the IPC revoked their medals however only the president of FEDDI was charged while a mixed group of 18 athletes and officials avoided court imposed sanction.

In response to their failure to protect disabled athletes the IPC cancelled intellectual disability competition until a reliable system could be created to determine eligibility. It was not until 2009 that the ban was lifted while the IPC instituted a series of ‘sports intelligence’ tests to confirm claimed disabilities. The new system requires an IQ score below 70 or 75, and satisfactory demonstration of a limitation in conceptual, social and practical adaptive skills assessed against through standardized testing. In addition to ignoring the documented cultural bias which exists in intelligence quotient testing the test demonstrates – even highlights – the differences between non-disabled and disabled athletes as a means of separating them. To an athlete seeking to assert him/herself as an elite performer on a world stage this is hardly an equitable or affirming system of evaluation.

Admissions criteria for athletes with non-intellectual disabilities have also been difficult to manage without controversy. Victoria Arlen is an 18-year-old swimmer who has been paralyzed since emerging from a three-year coma she entered while 11-years-old. Victoria has an autoimmune disease which attacks the spinal nervous bundle and swims without use of her legs and with limited mobility of her arms. The IPC has ruled her ineligible for competition because her condition may potentially not be permanent. The report relied upon by the IPC suggests that after years of physical therapy Victoria might be able to walk again. 

The nature of disability is not easy to describe and yet the Paralympic Games are considered the pinnacle sporting event for disabled athletes. The nature of the sport is competition among all those who are similarly limited in their ability to perform and winning is not intended to be a consolation prize for a disability. Accordingly, athletes who are equally disabled ought to be free to compete against one another without regard for whether one athlete may, possibly, one day be able to walk again. The potential that a non-disabled athlete who has had the benefit of being free of the training limitations of a disability may become disabled, compete, win, then recover, is not justification for denying a person who has a faint hope of recovery the opportunity to compete. The alternative is to create a two-tiered system which excludes athletes of equal disability due to the unpredictable nature of advances in medicine.

The Vision and Mission statement in the Constitution of the IPC states the organization seeks to uphold fundamental ethical principles and the spirit of fair play. It is a requirement of a fair and ethical competition that entry is based neither upon uncertain testing nor speculative assessments of future medical and personal accomplishments.

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One Comment on “Difficulties in distinguishing disabled athletes”

  1. kathyscapping Says:

    Could not agree more with this post!


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