• 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
Military drops torture case against soliders
A Spanish soldier walks with his backpack past US soldiers at US Camp Echo in the central Iraqi town of Diwaniya in May 2004. File photo: Roberto Schmidt/AFP

Military drops torture case against soliders

Five Spanish soldiers charged with war crimes over allegations they tortured prisoners in Iraq have been left off by a military court, with judges using a precedent set by former US president George Bush. READ  

Spain grows by 0.5 percent in third quarter
Photo of warehouse: Shutterstock

Spain grows by 0.5 percent in third quarter

Five straight quarters of growth have seen Spain's unemployment drop to lowest level since 2011, although it still stands at over 23 percent. READ  

Isis wants to spread Ebola: security chief
Graffiti reading "Death to Islamic State (Isis)" in the Jurf al-Sakhr area, north of the Shiite shrine city of Karbala, Iraq, on Monday. Photo: Haidar Hamdani/AFP

Isis wants to spread Ebola: security chief

The Spanish government is taking seriously discussions in internet chat rooms on how terrorists could use biological weapons including Ebola in its war against the West, a top official said in parliament on Wednesday. READ  

'Scary clown' craze hits Spanish city
Coulrophobia, or fear of clowns, has swept across France in recent weeks. Photo of scary clown: Shutterstock

'Scary clown' craze hits Spanish city

A 'scary clown' craze that has caused panic across France in recent weeks has arrived in the northern Spanish city of Gijón, local media are reporting. READ  

Top drug lord 'hid cocaine inside bananas'
Police said the suspect had been on the run since being sentenced to 17 years in jail in 2006 for drug smuggling and other crimes. Photo: Guardia Civil

Top drug lord 'hid cocaine inside bananas'

Spanish police said on Wednesday they had arrested nine people, including one of the country's biggest drug smugglers, after finding cocaine hidden among a shipment of bananas from Colombia. READ  

Spaniards 'ignorant' on impact of immigration
Spaniards mistakenly believe that the population includes eight times more Muslim people than it actually does. Photo: Lluis Gene/AFP

Spaniards 'ignorant' on impact of immigration

Spaniards massively overestimate the number of people in their country who are Muslims, unemployed or teenage mothers, but are well-informed about how long they can expect to live, according to a new 'ignorance index' released on Wednesday. READ  

Corruption focus
'Corruption virus is in the guts of the system'
A man disguised as Spain's Primer Minister Mariano Rajoy takes part to a protest against corruption in 2013. File photo: Jaime Reina/AFP

'Corruption virus is in the guts of the system'

A Madrid court on Wednesday summoned 17 suspects including five mayors and a French energy executive for questioning in a corruption scandal that has rocked the Spain government, while there were also heated exchanges in the national parliament. READ  

Spanish bank BBVA says quarterly profits triple
BBVA's net profit for the July to September period surged to €601 million ($765 million) from €195 million a year earlier thanks to an increase in business. DANI POZO / AFP

Spanish bank BBVA says quarterly profits triple

Spain's second-biggest bank by market value BBVA said on Wednesday its profits tripled in the third quarter despite falling over the first nine months of this year after exceptional gains in 2013. READ  

Dad told to pay child support to daughter, 29
A lawyer said the decision was "absurd" while the judge argued the daughter had no other financial resources. File photo of woman studying: Shutterstock

Dad told to pay child support to daughter, 29

A Spanish judge has ordered a father to pay his 29-year-old daughter €500 ($630) a month in financial assistance, citing the difficulties under 30s have in finding work because of the country's crisis. READ  

'Swindler' Gypsies slam Spain's new dictionary
Two members of Spain's Gypsy community cast their ballots in European Union elections in 2009. File photo: Cristina Quicler/AFP

'Swindler' Gypsies slam Spain's new dictionary

Roma rights groups are to protest against the decision by Spain's Royal Language Academy (RAE) to include a definition of a 'gypsy' as a 'swindler' in their new official dictionary. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Politics
'We're sorry': Spanish PM apologizes over corruption scandals
Tech
Meet Mr Biceps: Spanish policeman heats up Instagram
National
37 arrested as massive anti-corruption raids rattle Spain
National
Spain's public holidays in 2015: Official list
Health
Drug mule 'left to die' in airport over Ebola fears
National
Viral photo shows two worlds collide at Spain's African border
What's On
What's on in Spain: November 2014
National
Top Ten: the very best new Spanish words
National
Flash floods: woman dies in Canary Islands
Health
Cured: Spanish nurse with Ebola beats virus
International
Mango apologizes for 'Nazi blouse'
National
Where's the best place to live in Spain?
Travel
Top ten: great autumn getaways in Spain
National
The great Spanish cities quiz: take it now
National
Revealed: the cost of expat food in Spain
Politics
Catalan leader calls independence vote 'lite'
What's On
Games of Thrones star 'barred' from Seville film set
Education
Only one Spanish university makes world's top 200
What's On
What's on in Spain: October 2014
Politics
Spanish court suspends Catalan independence vote
National
Catalonia defies Madrid and calls independence vote
National
Spanish village swaps bulls for giant balls
Society
Spain scraps plans for tough new abortion law
National
'This is a great time for entrepreneurs in Spain'
National
Loud porn movie scares locals into calling cops
National
'We'll axe Catalan autonomy but won't send in tanks'
National
Spain's Thatcher square defaced by 'Brits'
National
Top 10: best Spanish movies of all time
National
Gravedigger suspended for corpse photo gaffe
Society
Named: the best city to live in Spain
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'
Property
'Dying' town flogs off land for €200 to woo new blood
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

1,687
jobs available