• Spain edition
 
Spanish Faces of the Week
'Stop playing well, they’ll know you're not disabled'
When sports daily Marca published a photo of them celebrating with their gold medal in Sydney, things started going very wrong. Photo: nuestrahistoria.blogspot

'Stop playing well, they’ll know you're not disabled'

Published: 11 Oct 2013 10:01 GMT+02:00
Updated: 11 Oct 2013 10:01 GMT+02:00

There is no doubt that Spain’s image abroad has been tarnished by political and royal scandals in recent years.

Some foreign commentators have come to see Spain as a country where cheating and corruption are as widespread as they are accepted.

But none of the scandals involving Spain’s elite have been as jaw-droppingly outrageous as that of the country’s fake mentally disabled team at the Sydney Paralympics in 2000.

This case, which has finally been brought to trial thirteen years after the event, raises at least three important points.

Why has it taken so long for these fraudsters to be brought to justice? Why has only one person been found guilty? And why has the punishment consisted of only a small fine?

Fourteen years ago, 12 semi-professional Spanish basketball players were approached by Fernando Martín Vicente, President of Spain’s Federation for Mentally Disabled Sports (FEDDI) at the time.

"I couldn't believe it when I was told that the whole Paralympics movement was a farce," wrote Carlos Ribagorda, team member and journalist who uncovered the scandal.

"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."

Ribagorda wrote in Capital, the finance magazine he worked for, that huge sponsorship deals with multinationals like Telefónica and BBVA were at stake.

The players were lured in by the appeal of €150,000 ($200,000) for the winning team at the Sydney Olympics.

Guilty consciences were assuaged by Martín Vicente’s assurance that all the other teams would take the same approach and that fake Paralympians were commonplace in each and every one of the sports at the Games.

The final team chosen was made up of two players with IQs below 70 as required; the rest posed as mentally disabled players with the help of fake medical certificates they were provided with. 

Half way through the first game of the tournament, the referee called time out with China trailing 30 points behind the Spaniards.

“Lads, move down a gear or they’ll figure out you’re not disabled,” the Spanish trainer told his players in a half-serious half-joking manner, Ribagorda recalls.

But even playing half-heartedly, Spain breezed through to the final where they went on to beat Russia.

That’s when the trouble began.

Spanish sports daily Marca published a story about the victorious team accompanied by a photo of them celebrating on the Sydney court.

Soon readers wrote: "Hey, I know that guy" or "I’ve played against him and he’s not disabled at all", Ribagorda recalls reading in the article’s comments section.

"(When we were due to fly back), they told us to wear hats and sunglasses so that we wouldn't be recognized at the airport.

"We were walked through a special gate alongside Spain’s Secretary of Sport Juan Antonio Gómez Angulo. By that stage there was no hope of a cover-up."

Ribagorda spoke to his editor about what was going to happen before he left for Sydney.

They decided he should act as an undercover journalist during the tournament and keep regular contact with Capital’s editors via email.

"We prepared the headline 'Fraud at the Paralympics' as well as the front cover of the magazine the day after (Ribagorda) told me what was going to happen," Capital’s editor Carlos Salas told online daily La Información.

Ribagorda, along with some of his team mates, returned their gold medals, team kits and spending money to the Paralympics headquarters in Bonn, Germany.

Their acts had brought not only Paralympic basketball into disrepute; the ethics and values of the whole Games were now being questioned.

Ribagorda even went as far as saying that a couple of their Russian opponents in the final were "just too good", thus suggesting Spain weren't the only team using dirty tactics.

It’s taken an unbelievable thirteen years for the cheats who left Spain’s sporting reputation in tatters to be brought to justice.

Fernando Martín Vicente, the mastermind behind the botched money-making scam, took full responsibility for Spain’s biggest sporting scandal since he realized there was no way out.

Father of a disabled child, Martín Vicente founded the National Association of Special Sports in 1975, an organization which has reportedly received huge amounts of state money over the years.

Spanish newspaper El Mundo went as far as saying his role as chairman of various bodies involved in sports and disabilities had earned him a €5 million fortune as well as eight cars, five houses and a yacht.

On Monday he finally stood trial at Madrid’s Provincial Court in a case which the world, as well as most Spaniards, has preferred to forget.

Although the former FEDDI president was found guilty of fraud and forgery, he only had to pay a €5,400 fine and return the almost €150,000 he received from sponsorship deals when Spain won the gold.

The ten basketball players who disgraced their country have been cleared of all charges.

It's a scandal that could force Spain's sporting community to take a long, hard look at itself and question it's values and those of its sportsmen — some of the only people to truly bring any glory to Spain since the crisis began. 

Alex Dunham (alex.dunham@thelocal.com)

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
EU's new green energy man flogs his oil shares
The total value of Cañete's oil shares stands at €320,000, an asset declaration report he presented in the Spanish Parliament suggests. Photo: Miguel Riopa/AFP

EU's new green energy man flogs his oil shares

The EU's newly appointed Climate Action and Energy commissioner - Spain's controversial politician Miguel Arias Cañete - has decided to sell €320,000 ($414,000) worth in shares in two oil companies owned by his wife's family to avoid a 'conflict of interests'. READ  

Catalonia crisis
'We'll axe their autonomy but won't send in tanks'
Margallo also gave his opinion that a 'yes' vote in Thursday's Scottish independence referendum would lead to a "Balkanization" of Europe. Photo: ISHARA S.KODIKARA / AFP

'We'll axe their autonomy but won't send in tanks'

José Manuel García-Margallo, Spain's Foreign Minister, has said that his government would use "all means necessary" to stop the planned independence referendum in Catalonia, including stripping the region of its autonomous powers, but ruled out 'sending in the tanks' because it was 'not in the constitution'. READ  

VIDEO
Spanish bus driver busted texting at wheel
The driver reportedly ignored passenger complaints and only stopped texting when he saw that he was being filmed. Screen Grab: YouTube/El Periódico

Spanish bus driver busted texting at wheel

The driver of a shuttle bus service between Barcelona's airport and city centre is facing disciplinary action after a passenger videoed him sending WhatsApp messages on his mobile phone while steering through traffic. READ  

'Drunk' tamer ties bear to lamp post in hail storm
Village authorities had paid the man to make the bear walk with a music band and pretend to play the trumpet. Photo: FAADA

'Drunk' tamer ties bear to lamp post in hail storm

A Spanish animal rights group is suing a circus worker who left a bear tied to a lamp post in the middle of a hail storm while he went to a bar to have a drink. READ  

Madrid unveils Margaret Thatcher square
The square is in the wealthy Salamanca district and was previously un-named. Photo: GERRY PENNY / AFP / Google Street View

Madrid unveils Margaret Thatcher square

The Spanish capital became the first city in the world to name a square after Margaret Thatcher, the controversial former British Prime Minister whose political legacy still divides opinion. READ  

Business
Orange buys up Spanish rival for €3.4 billion
If the acquisition goes ahead, Orange expects synergies worth €1.3 billion from the deal. Photo: Eric Piermont/AFP

Orange buys up Spanish rival for €3.4 billion

French telecom giant Orange on Monday made a €3.4-billion offer ($4.4 billion) to acquire Spanish fixed-line operator Jazztel. READ  

Spain's prehistoric cave art open to lucky few
Experts weren't sure the paintings could withstand the breath and germs of visitors. Handout photo: Museo Arqueológico Nacional de España

Spain's prehistoric cave art open to lucky few

A cave in Spain containing some of the world's most precious prehistoric art will stay open for trial visits after decades closed for conservation reasons. READ  

Catalan leader's son denies graft allegations
Jordi Pujol Ferrusola is suspected of collecting millions of euros by winning bids on government contracts and hiding the money in foreign bank accounts. Photo: Dani Pozo/AFP

Catalan leader's son denies graft allegations

The son of a former president of Catalonia denied tax fraud and money-laundering allegations in court on Monday in a probe that has tarnished the region's campaign for independence from Spain. READ  

Dutchman in Spanish jail waits for DNA justice
The case has remained tied up in legal red tape despite DNA evidence linking a convicted British killer and rapist to the crime. Photo: Wikipedia Commons/Maggie Bartlett, NHGRI

Dutchman in Spanish jail waits for DNA justice

A Dutchman convicted of sexually assaulting three women in Spain has been in prison for the last 11 years despite DNA results 7 years ago suggesting he wasn't the culprit. READ  

Catalonia crisis
'What weapon to punish separatist Catalan boss?'
The tweet, which has since been deleted, shows a photo of the Catalan leader surrounded by different weapons, including a handgun, a grenade, a broken glass bottle and a grenade. Photo: Twitter/PP Mas

'What weapon to punish separatist Catalan boss?'

Popular Party representatives in a village in Catalonia sent out a photo tweet on Saturday suggesting various weapons which could be used against the region’s president Artur Mas if he continues to push for a referendum on independence. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
National
Gravedigger suspended for corpse photo gaffe
Society
Named: the best city to live in Spain
Marks & Spencer
Sponsored Article
Fashion Ladies of the Local: Win a New Autumn Look
National
Catalonia's 'Diada': 5 things you need to know
Travel
Top ten amazing activities in Tenerife
National
Spain opens door to ban on burqas
Travel
Top ten: best bike rides in Spain
Travel
Spain to reopen 'world's most dangerous walk': The Camino del Rey
National
'Catalonia could be the shock Spain needs'
National
Office slang: Top ten Spanish expressions
Sport
Think you know Spanish football? Try these amazing facts
International
Australia set to welcome young Spanish workers
Opinion
Is tourism destroying Barcelona?
Society
Fashion fail: Zara pulls plug on 'Holocaust shirt' for kids
National
Man hurt as friend swaps ice bucket for plane
Spain 'would block independent Scotland from joining EU'
Politics
Spain 'would block independent Scotland from joining EU'
International
Spanish police mistake Morocco's king for people smuggler
What's On
What's on in Spain: September
Society
Miss Spain comes out of closet on Instagram
Travel
Top ten: Spain's best natural swimming pools
Property
'Dying' town flogs off land for €200 to woo new blood
National
Gays to blame for Spain's trillion euro debt: senator
Society
Spain's anti-rape guidelines: 1) Close your curtains
National
Woman on Madrid plane had 1.7kg coke in breasts
Latest news from The Local in Austria

More news from Austria at thelocal.at

Latest news from The Local in Switzerland

More news from Switzerland at thelocal.ch

Latest news from The Local in Germany

More news from Germany at thelocal.de

Latest news from The Local in Denmark

More news from Denmark at thelocal.dk

Latest news from The Local in France

More news from France at thelocal.fr

Latest news from The Local in Italy

More news from Italy at thelocal.it

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

Latest news from The Local in Sweden

More news from Sweden at thelocal.se

1,649
jobs available