Paralympian Resolve: Intellectually Disabled Athletes Return After 12-Year Ban

The torch flame overlooking the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games. The IPC suspended all intellectually disabled (ID) competition for the Beijing Games.

In the Sydney Paralympic Games in 2000, the Spanish basketball team competing in the intellectually disabled classification easily won the gold medal.  In the group stages, they outscored their opponents 254-126, and in the medal round they won both of their games by more than 20 points.1

Three days later, after having received the praise of spectators and journalists, a member of the team confirmed everyone’s worst fears.  He revealed that the team was performed so well because the majority of the team truly was not intellectually disabled.  As the scandal ran its course in the weeks following the announcement, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) indefinitely suspended intellectually disabled (ID) competition in all sports.  The IPC later suspended ID competition in the 2004 Athens games and the 2008 Beijing games.

However, after twelve years of being barred from the Paralympics, ID athletes will have a renewed opportunity to compete in the London 2012 games.  The ID classification, one of six disability classifications in the Paralympics, will be eligible to hold competitions in track and field, swimming, and table tennis.2

The ultimately successful push to reinstate ID competition began in 2004.  It began on the part of Inas, the international governing body for ID athletics at the elite level. That year, Inas persuaded the IPC to reinstate ID athletes on the grounds that Inas and the IPC together develop a new process for determining the eligibility of ID athletes.  In the system in place during the 2000 Sydney games, the Spanish Paralympic Committee was able to sign nine members onto its basketball team without a requirement for any psychological evaluations or proof of prior ones.3

The two organizations worked tirelessly, persisting in their efforts after finding out that the suspension was still in place for the 2008 Beijing games.  The project’s main focus was on making both eligibility criteria generalized for all ID athletes and eligibility criteria that was tailored to each sport.4 To do this, the project reached out to researchers from five universities and research institutes around the world in fields as diverse as clinical psychology and human physiology.  The progress the project made proved to be astounding, as researchers also made strides in the on-field evaluation of ID athletes.  These evaluations measured an athlete’s various motor and cognitive skills, including reasoning, working memory, visual-spatial perception, and reaction time.  With these focused evaluations, the researchers believed they had a clear method of determining, on the field of play, who did and who did not meet the criteria for a mental handicap.5

Inas also reworked its oversight system so that it was able to subject all applications for eligibility to a full review.  To apply, athletes now need to submit an internationally recognized IQ test with a score under 75 alongside a certified psychologist’s evaluation of the results.  Athletes also need to submit the results of a recognized adaptive behavior test that has been subject to a psychologist’s evaluation.  The adaptive behavior test, which tests a person’s communication and motor skills, as well as his or her ability to adapt to doing daily tasks with his or her handicap, must show deficiencies that are two standard deviations below the mean.  The athlete also needs to provide evidence that the onset of their disability came before the age of 18.6 After testing these improved oversight methods, as well as the on-field evaluations at the Inas Global Games in July 2009, the IPC deemed the standards acceptable and opened competition for ID athletes at the 2012 London games.7

Several athletes have already been through the eligibility process and are working hard towards qualifying for the first ID Paralympic competitions in twelve years.  In the United States, cyclist Syd Lea returned from the 2011 Inas Global Games in October with two gold medals.8 Leslie Cichoki has swum some of the fastest times in her disability classification in 2011, all while working towards a culinary arts degree.9 Michael Murray, a middle distance track runner, has run personal bests of 4:10 in the 1500 meters and 1:59 in the 800 meters while working a full time job.  Murray, a proven competitor who runs three laps around the track all-out the day before a race, says his favorite part of the sport are the friendships he has made through the sport.  Murray is now working towards the 1500 Paralympic standard of 4:05.  If he makes the standard, he will face competition from top runners like Iranian Peyman Nasiri Bazanjani.10 In January, Bazanjani ran an incredible time of 3:58, comparable to that of NCAA Division I runners.11

His performance is a testament to Inas’ and the IPC’s commitment to elite competition.  Top-flight competition is what distances both organizations from the Special Olympics, which also holds competitions for ID athletes.  The IPC’s stance is that, “The Paralympics are about elite performance sport, where athletes go through a stringent qualification process so that the best can compete at the games.  On the other hand, the Special Olympics does not make as clear of a distinction between the elite and recreational sport…while the Paralympics emphasizes high-level performance, the Special Olympics emphasizes participation from those who can and will”.12

As the 2012 Paralympics in London move ever closer, Inas is already looking at the Rio 2016 games and beyond.  The organization is unsatisfied with the limited number of sports offered to ID athletes in London and is working towards implementing more sports like tennis and alpine skiing for future Paralympics.  Alpine skiing, if implemented, would be the first ID sport contested at a winter Paralympics.  Although the future looks hopeful, one cannot but wonder about what the world missed out on in the ID competitions in the 2004 and 2008 Paralympics.13 The 2012 games this summer will surely provide a clue.


  1. International Paralympic Committee, “Results: Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games: Basketball ID: Men.” Accessed November 1, 2011.
  2. BBC News, “Spain in Paralympics Scandal.” Accessed October 19, 2011. November 24, 2000.
  3. Ibid
  4. International Paralympic Committee, “Joint Statement on the Re-inclusion of Athletes With Intellectual Disability.” Last modified September 13, 2008. Accessed October 19, 2011.
  5. Van de Vliet, Peter. Inas, “Memorandum.” Last modified December 15, 2009. Accessed October 22, 2011.
  6. Athletes without Limits, “Application.” Accessed November 1, 2011.
  7. Van de Vliet, Peter. Inas, “Memorandum.” Last modified December 15, 2009. Accessed October 22, 2011.
  8. Athletes without Limits, “Syd Lea.” Accessed November 1, 2011.
  9. Athletes without Limits, “Leslie Chichoki.” Accessed November 1, 2011.
  10. Athletes without Limits, “Michael Murray.” Accessed November 1, 2011.
  11., “2011 MAC Outdoor Track and Field Championships.” Accessed November 1, 2011
  12. International Paralympic Committee, “FAQ.” Accessed October 22, 2011.
  13. Inas, “Executive Committee Report 2009/2010.” Accessed November 1, 2011.
  14. AudreyH. Beijing: The Bird’s Nest stadium, JPG,

Evan Jin is a second-year student at the University of Chicago majoring in biology. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter. Join us on Facebook.