At the 2000 Paralympic Games in Sydney, the Spanish team handily beat the Russians in the final of the basketball tournament for the intellectually disabled. Spaniards rejoiced in their proud, inspiring gold medal winners. That is, until one of the team's members (a journalist) disclosed that he and other members had never been tested for disability. An inquiry followed. In a shocking reveal, fully 10 of the 12 Spanish basketball players were found to have no intellectual disability at all. Spain’s medal was revoked, and the intellectual disability category was suspended from the games for eight years as more allegations of cheating arose. In 2012, athletes with intellectual disability finally returned to the Paralympics in London under more stringently monitored criteria.
Before the scandal, few had considered that people might fake a disability in order to compete in the Paralympics. Yet even sporting events for the physically disabled have had their cheating scandals. A Dutch “paraplegic” handbiker who won two silver medals in 2008 recently admitted that she could, in fact, stand and walk at the time of her win. And in 2006, a Russian skier who was competing in the visually impaired category outed her ability to see when she cheered at seeing her name on the scoreboard. Paralympic Games officials have employed medical investigators to root out cheaters, and it seems the world has a small but dedicated minority of people who will fake handicaps in order to gain Paralympic gold.
It's easy to understand why a professional baseball player might take performance-enhancing drugs—being a better player would likely make him more money. The college-bound student who sneaks a peek at a neighbor's test seems equally sensible, if unethical—she hopes that better scores would get her into a better university that will provide more resources for her future. The urge to cheat at cards or your taxes makes some sort of intuitive sense to most of us, even if we wouldn't do it ourselves. But why on earth would anyone feign disability for a medal—seemingly lots of risk for relatively little gain?
The answer lies in our evolutionary past. Most people are hardwired to cheat a little bit, while a few of us are willing to cheat a lot. We are also born with a deep desire to prove ourselves as winners and to reap the economic and sexual benefits of being on top. There is a lot of competition for those benefits and anything we can do to improve our odds, like cutting a few corners or taking a shortcut, might seem like a good idea. However, fear of being looked down upon, shamed, or excluded by our social group keeps most people from cheating. After all, the energy saved with a little creative rule-breaking would nowhere near make up for the loss of social standing that would result.
As social animals, humans are renowned for our qualities of cooperation and altruism. We could only develop our cooperative behavior if most people (and institutions) obeyed the social contract. At the same time, everyone would like to get something for nothing, so there will always be pressure to cheat. In order to deal with that inevitable pressure, societies have developed plenty of ways to ferret out cheaters. Journalists and economists examine statistics, looking for unusual streaks of luck in order to discover cheating teachers and athletes. The IRS audits questionable tax returns to catch fraudsters, and both sides of the political spectrum fight over how best to make sure everything's above board at the ballot box.
Sumo wrestlers cheat. Race car drivers cheat. Baseball players cheat. Ancient Olympians cheated. Contemporary Olympians cheat. Fixing matches, sharing information, taking drugs, taking bribes, using illegal equipment—all these shenanigans have been a part of sports ever since sports have been a part of human life. Whenever and wherever we don't continuously monitor for cheating, it will occur. That's why the Paralympics cheaters should come as anything but a surprise. The idea that a Paralympic medal isn't "worth" cheating for says less about the cheaters and more about the unspoken prejudice many of us have about disability. Paralympians, like all humans, will cheat.
Have you ever cheated?
photo by Stuart Grout