• Spain's news in English
 
app_header_v3

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

Alex Dunham · 11 Oct 2013, 10:01

Published: 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.

Story continues below…

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
Spanish court bars top Eta figure from Basque elections
The Basque separatist leader in San Sebastian. Photo: AFP

Arnaldo Otegi, once jailed for terrorism charges, has been barred from standing in Basque elections.

Spanish town warns against texting while crossing roads
The warnings now appear at crossings in Talavera de la Reina in Spain.

It might seem entirely obvious to most, but it seems some people need to be told that looking at your phone while crossing a busy road can prove dangerous.

Police launch appeal for Costa Blanca hit and run driver
Photo: N332 /@drivingSpain/facebook

Do you recognise this car?

What political deadlock? Spain economy forges ahead
Rajoy is struggling to form a government. Photo: AFP

Eight months without a government but is Spain really the worse for it?

Ten fascinating museums in Spain you REALLY must visit
The innovative NMAC foundation in southern Spain's Cádiz province features contemporay art in a former military installation. Photo: Guillermo Varela

To mark International Museum Day, The Local takes a look at ten museums in Spain, you may not have visited. But should.

True cost of Spain's balcony-jumping craze revealed
A tourist leaping into a swimming pool. Screen grab: YouTube

They're young, on holiday, drunk and sometimes high, and they decide to jump from their hotel or apartment balcony into the pool. But some miss and end up in hospital... or worse, dead.

Weather
Spain sizzles in last heatwave of the summer
Photo: AFP

There is still time to work on your tan, enjoy refreshing gazpacho, or head for the pool.

Ibiza flight scare after police officer accidentally fires gun
The incident happened on a Vueling flight from Ibiza to Madrid. Photo: AFP

A police officer’s gun accidentally fired in the cabin of a Vueling passenger jet on the runway at Ibiza causing alarm among passengers.

Travel
Off the beaten track: 14 best kept travel secrets in Spain
Spain has some amazing spots like Las Medulas gold mine. Photo: Jonathan Pincas/Flickr

Spain has so much to see off the beaten track so why not take the road less travelled and discover a few hidden gems?

The Local List
Ten brilliantly useful words English 'stole' from Spanish
There would be no macho men if it wasn't for Spanish. Photo: Ryan Gesner

The Local looks at ten fantastic words the English language 'borrowed' from Spanish — and won't be giving back.

Sponsored Article
Life in Jordan: 'Undiscovered treasure'
International
'We won't ban burqinis on our beaches' insists Barcelona
Sponsored Article
Why you should attend an international job fair
Lifestyle
Recipe: How to make Andalusian Ajo Blanco soup
Travel
Keep passports safe: Typical pickpocket scams revealed
Sponsored Article
Jordan: where history meets adventure
Travel
Ten touristy types you'll meet in Spain: Which one are you?
Sponsored Article
Five things Americans should know about voting abroad
Lifestyle
Ten top tips to avoid looking like a guiri when in Spain
International
Don't miss this spectacular meteor shower over Spain
Travel
Desperate Ryanair passenger chases after missed flight
Sponsored Article
Why expats choose international health insurance
Travel
What's on in Spain: August 2016
Sponsored Article
Why you should attend an international job fair
National
Get your kit off! Spain's ten best nudist beaches
National
German firestarter blames blaze on 'toilet paper mishap'
Sponsored Article
Jordan Pass: your ticket to the experience of a lifetime
National
Flashmob prank sparks 'terror attack' panic in Spanish resort
Sponsored Article
Why expats choose international health insurance
Culture
Croquemon Go: Spain invents twist on game to 'eat 'em all'
Technology
Six free apps to simplify your summer in Spain
National
Spanish parents fight for right to name their son 'Wolf'
National
Beach closed after shark attack in southern Spain
National
Spain ups security at tourist spots as terrorism fears grow
National
Ten great reasons to discover the real Malaga right now
Lifestyle
The good, bad and the ugly of long distance relationships
National
7 reasons why grandparents in Spain are simply the best
Travel
Barcelona bans Segways from tourist clogged waterfront
National
Spain pays €300m each year in pensions… to dead people
National
Police issue guidelines as Pokémon craze sweeps Spain
National
Another dodgy art restoration raises alarm in Spain
3,302
jobs available