Competing Under False Pretenses: Fake Handicaps a Growing Problem for Disabled Sports
Cheating is becoming an increasing problem in sports events for athletes with disabilities. Rigorous inspections are supposed to root out those who are only faking a handicap, but some imposters get through — like the supposedly blind athlete who cheered when she saw her result on the board.
Jürgen Schmid poses the question to the man sitting in front of him in a casual manner, as if the answer were obvious. “Can you stand up?”
“Mais non,” the French athlete in the blue tracksuit top answers — of course not. He says that he has been a paraplegic since an operation went wrong 11 years ago.
Schmid reaches for a measuring tape and places it around the athlete’s thigh. It measures 50 centimeters (20 inches) around. “Pretty thick,” he says, and then he pinches the athlete’s calf and kneads it like a piece of dough. He runs a ballpoint pen across the bare sole of his foot. “Do you feel that?” The Frenchman says no again. “You have strong muscles in your legs, and I wonder why,” Schmid replies.
It’s a Friday in April in the town of Rosenau in the eastern French region of Alsace, the day before the world’s biggest handbike race is set to begin. Handbikes are tricycles that are propelled with cranks moved by the rider’s arms — wheeled vehicles for people who are unable to walk.
Before the race can begin, Schmid examines the athletes in the conference room of a hotel. They include paralytics, spastics and leg amputees. Schmid is a physical therapist from Hamburg. He is also working here in Alsace as a medical investigator. He is supposed to track down athletes who are faking a disability.
Schmid decides that the Frenchman with the thick thighs is legitimate. But he remains skeptical, and he wants to observe the handbiker in a race. Perhaps, he speculates, the man is capable of more movement that he has just demonstrated.