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Football News: Sporting Villains Part 1: Spain's Paralympic Basketball Team 2000

Sporting Villains Part 1: Spain's Paralympic Basketball Team 2000
Image from: freelargeimages.com

Sporting Villains Part 1: Spain's Paralympic Basketball Team 2000

It seemed only right to start this new series on 'Sporting Villains' with possibly the biggest villains of all time, the Spanish Paralympics Intellectually Disabled Basketball team from the Sydney Paralympics in 2000. They were part of the most successful ever Spanish Paralympics team, in what seemed like a feel good story, at least initially.

That team won every game on their way to the gold medal, beating Russia in the final 87-63 and the pictures of the team celebrating made the front pages of all the newspapers. However there were suspicions appearing amongst the comments in Madrid-based newspaper Marca's coverage, as people left comments along the lines of "I have played against him, he is not disabled". Suspicions that increased when the team did not come out of the main entrance with the rest of the team when they arrived back in Madrid to a triumphant welcome.

Instead they had been sneaked out of a side entrance, all dressed in hats, dark glasses and beards, the worst kind of disguises anyone could imagine. However, it would probably all have been forgotten about and no more said if it had not been for one giant fuc.... mistake the Spanish had made. They had included in their basketball team a certain Carlos Ribagorda, who just happened to be a journalist for business magazine Capital, and in no way at all intellectually disabled.

He had joined the team with the sole intention of writing a story on it for the magazine, with the blessing of his editor, who had even prepared the headlines and front cover ready for his return. Ribagorda's article made a number of claims, but they were denied by a a certain Fernando Martin Vicente, who was a member of the International Paralympics Committee (IPC), vice-president of the Spanish Paralympic Committee (CPE) and president of the Spanish Federation of Sportspeople with Intellectual Disabilities (FEDDI). Martin Vicente stated: "I am completely sure that no fraud has existed. All athletes have undergone the appropriate controls."

"I couldn't believe it when I was told the whole Paralympics movement was a farce. I had to see it with my own eyes so I took part in the Iberian Cup in Portugal prior to the Sydney games. None of the twelve players who made up our team were mentally disabled." - Carlos Ribagorda

However Martin Vicente's bluster was not enough to persuade anyone and the IPC suspended him while an investigation was launched into Ribagorda's claims. It soon emerged that Martin Vicente, despite his claims of being too important to get involved in choosing the competitors, was in fact the central figure in the whole scandal. An involvement that dated back to 1975, when the former Madrid city councillor and father to a disabled child had set up the National Association of Special Sports (ANDE).

The association received large sums of state funding, 'coincidentally' Martin Vicente's personal wealth was also growing, reaching millions and he also owned a yacht, 8 cars, 5 houses and a number of large parcels of land. Ribagorda believed that greed was behind the cheating, as huge sponsorship deals with major companies such as Telefonica and BBVA were at stake and depended on the Spanish team being successful in Sydney.

Certainly the promise of a free trip to Australia, with spending money, and a potential share of a 150,000 euro prize pot for the winners was enough to fill the team with players. "I think people saw it as a free trip to Australia. There was even some pride at wearing the Spanish team strip," said Ribagorda. What there was none of us was tests to see if the competitors were actually disabled. In fact the only tests they underwent was being told to do 6 press ups before their blood pressure was taken! They were then provided with fake medical certificates by the Spanish officials.

The team spent five months training in Madrid prior to the trip. Ribagorda revealed that there was not a single disabled person in sight during those five months and the two genuinely disabled players on the 12 man team came in late from outside of Madrid. The first match was against China and Spain strode in to a 30 point lead, so their coach told them, "lads, move down a gear or they'll figure out you're not disabled."

Winning every game on their way to the final, where they beat Russia who, according to Ribagorda had a couple of players who were too good to be disabled, the pictures appeared in Marca and a number of the players were recognised, including the coach of an amateur team, as not being disabled. "They told us to wear hats and sunglasses so that we wouldn't be recognised at the airport. We were walked through a special gate alongside Spain's Secretary of Sport Juan Antonio Gomez Angulo. By that stage there was no hope of a cover-up."

Martin Vicente denied that there had been any attempt to cheat the system, even after tests proved that Ribagorda's claims were true and the gold medals were returned he said when resigning: "If someone wants to cheat, it's difficult to detect. It's easy to pretend you have little intelligence but the opposite is difficult." However the investigation revealed that none of the players had ever faced an intelligence test to need to pretend.

According to Ribagorda the cheating extended beyond the basketball as well: "Of the 200 Spanish athletes at Sydney at least 15 had no type of physical or mental handicap - they didn't even pass medical or psychological examinations. The federation didn't hesitate in signing up athletes without any type of handicap. They just sent them an official letter - the aim of this policy was to win medals and gain more sponsorship. The FEDDI discovered that it could benefit from signing up athletes who had no physical or mental handicap." There were 5 medals he believed, at least, that were won fraudulently by the Spanish team.

Incidentally, there is more evidence that the cheating extended beyond basketball HERE.

Eventually Martin Vicente and 18 others faced charges in the Spanish courts, including the 10 members of the basketball team who were not disabled, but, in the end Martin Vicente admitted all responsibility and the rest saw their charges dropped. It took until 2013 before Martin Vicente was sentenced, when he received a ridiculously lenient 5,400 euro fine plus an order to return the 142,355 euros in government subsidies FEDDI had been given.

Meanwhile genuinely intellectually disabled sportspeople were excluded from competing in the Paralympics for the next couple, until in 2009 a test was introduced to determine competitors intelligence. It seems like the only people who were genuinely punished were the intellectually disabled athletes who had to miss out on a chance of glory at the Paralympics in 2004 and 2008.

Written by Ed001 September 19 2018 23:08:24