• Spain's news in English
 
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

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
Baby Jesus stolen from Christmas crib again

Baby Jesus stolen from Christmas crib again

The nativity scene in the heart of Santiago de Compostela is missing one of its most important components after a statue of the baby Jesus was stolen for the second time in three years. READ  

Spain's Acciona inks €1.4bn Sydney rail deal
Work on the line with 19 stops is scheduled to start in April 2015 and it is expected to start operating at the beginning of 2019. Screen grab: Acciona/YouTube

Spain's Acciona inks €1.4bn Sydney rail deal

Spanish builder Acciona said Wednesday that a consortium it is part of has signed a contract worth €1.4 billion ($1.7 billion) to build and operate a light-rail line through Sydney. READ  

Families urge Pope to intervene in cult case
Pope Francis pictured on his recent visit to Turkey. Photo: Filipo Monteforte/AFP

Families urge Pope to intervene in cult case

The parents of 'nuns' with a Spanish sect hit whose leader has been hit with sexual abuse charges have called on the Pope to help convince the young women to leave the order. READ  

Catalonia crisis
Spain's chief prosecutor steps down
Spain's state prosecutor-general Eduardo Torres-Dulce said he was resigning for "personal reasons". File photo: Salvador Victoria Bolívar/Flickr

Spain's chief prosecutor steps down

Spain's state prosecutor-general announced his resignation on Thursday, just weeks after he was placed under intense political pressure to act against the government of Spain's Catalonia region over its decision to stage a symbolic independence vote. READ  

Weak rouble to hit Russian tourism to Spain

Weak rouble to hit Russian tourism to Spain

Tourism operators in Spain are worried a weak rouble could take a serious bite out of luxury Russian tourism to the country, a booming business in recent years. READ  

Fugitive killer mocks judges from Caribbean

Fugitive killer mocks judges from Caribbean

In a story that could come straight from Hollywood, a man facing 20 years in prison in Spain for murder has been sending postcards to his trial judge from the Caribbean, despite there being an international warrant for his arrest. READ  

Football hooliganism
Soldier and cop held over Spain football brawl
A man looks at a message reading "Here Francisco J. Romero was murdered. No forgetting no forgiving" on December 1st. Photo: Pierre-Phillipe Marcou/AFP

Soldier and cop held over Spain football brawl

A soldier and a policeman are among 41 people arrested in Spain over a football riot last month in which a Deportivo La Coruña fan died after being thrown into a river, officials said on Wednesday. READ  

Spain hails news stage in US–Cuba relations
People outside the Little Havana restaurant of Versailles in Miami after news of US President Barack Obama's announcement of a change of United States–Cuba policy on Wednesday. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty

Spain hails news stage in US–Cuba relations

Spain's foreign minister on Wednesday hailed the restoration of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba, saying it opened "a new stage" in ties between the two nations. READ  

Madrid: police seize 220,000 dangerous toys
The toys seized in a joint operation between the national police and Madrid’s local police posed risks including asphyxiation and poisoning. Photo: Policía Nacional

Madrid: police seize 220,000 dangerous toys

Over 220,000 toys have been seized from toy-sellers in Madrid in an operation named Black Toy, with police saying they posed a serious risk to child safety. READ  

'If my husband died for Isis I would accept it'
A general view of El Principe district in Ceuta, home to 87,000 people, 99 percent of whom are Muslim. Photo: Jorge Guerrero/AFP

'If my husband died for Isis I would accept it'

Fears are growing over increased radicalization of women in Spain's north African enclave of Ceuta with local leaders saying a lack of opportunities is exacerbating the problem. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
National
Nativity donkey squashed by fat fan
Society
Lifting the lid on Spain's mysterious Christmas lottery
National
Why has The Local got a new logo?
What's On
Top 12 things to do in Spain over Christmas
Politics
Spain passes tough new 'anti-protest' law
Business & Money
Google News quits Spain in paid content row
What's On
How to party like a Spaniard: the ultimate guide
Society
Madrid's shocking slum shames Spanish capital
National
Policeman mauled by lions at Barcelona zoo
Business & Money
Uber eyes appeal against Spain ban
Travel
Google offers virtual views of Spain's wonders
Sponsored Article
Top ten gifts for an expat Christmas
Education
Three Spanish business schools makes Europe's top 10
Health
Spain officially free of Ebola: World Health Organization
Travel
Ten Spanish museums you need to know about
National
Can you pass the Spanish citizenship test?
Sponsored Article
Win a €250 voucher for your Christmas list
National
Malaga: mini-tornado causes damage on coast
National
Google Maps 'undeletes' famous Cordoba mosque
National
Riot cops star in Down Syndrome calendar
What's On
What's on in Spain: December 2014
Sponsored Article
Travel & live like a local with Home Exchange
National
'Plane laser' finds Roman gold mines in Spain
National
From the Armada to Orwell: ten great quotes about Spain
National
34 percent of Spain's workers on €645 minimum wage
Sponsored Article
Shop Christmas gifts at Debenhams international store
Society
The Duchess of Alba: eight amazing facts
International
'World's longest railway' links Madrid and China
What's On
What's on in Spain: November 2014
International
MPs call on Spain to recognize Palestine
International
VIDEO: Greenpeace activist injured in Canary Islands oil clash
Education
Spaniards are speaking better English than ever: study
Politics
The Dummies' Guide to Spain's new Podemos Party
National
Ten Spanish dishes to try before you die
Property
Spain's golden visa scheme struggles to take off
National
80 percent of voters say 'yes' to independent Catalonia
Society
Ten things you should never say to a Spaniard
National
Boardgame cashes in on Spain's corruption crisis
Society
Real's Ronaldo world's second richest athlete
National
Priests slam Spain's jacuzzi-loving 'archbishop of bling'
National
Ten shocking corruption cases hurting Spain
National
Seville: Erasmus student dies in selfie fall
Travel
Top ten: brilliant Barcelona restaurants
Society
Dad told to pay child support to 29-year-old daughter
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
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

599
jobs available
The Local Spain is hiring!
The Local is seeking a new editor for our site in Spain to join our growing team of internationally-minded, driven, ambitious and clued-up journalists.
Details and how to apply