Is doping a bigger problem at the Paralympic Games than the Olympic Games?

Many people find it hard to believe that cheating occurs in sport for the disabled. This possibly reflects a perception of sport for the disabled that is grounded more in ‘pity for these poor unfortunate individuals’ than one that views them as athletes who simply happen to have an impairment. The growing media coverage and increasing rewards now available to individuals who are successful at the highest levels of disability sport and the increasing importance placed on being successful at the Paralympic Games by national governments mean that the pressure to succeed can lead to a win at all cost mentality amongst some individuals. Many of the forms of cheating that have long been known about in international non-disabled sport are now also prevalent in elite sport for the disabled. Although cheating is to be deplored in any sport, disabled or non-disabled, what it does highlight is that athletes with disabilities are as human as everyone else with the same wants, desires and potential character flaws that may lead them to cheat.

Much has been written about the illegal use of drugs for performance enhancement purposes within non-disabled sport. Drugs cheats also occur in disability sport. However, the problem is made far more difficult in disability sport by the fact that some athletes actually need to take prescription drugs on a regular basis for health reasons, which is why there is a system known as the Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE), whereby athletes declare what drugs they are taking for medical reasons and are then cleared to compete. Any scientist carrying out a dope test then knows what drugs to expect to find and at what levels when carrying out the test.

Dope testing at the Summer Paralympic Games appears to have begun at the Stoke Mandeville Games in 1984 when eight urine samples all tested negative. Since then the number of tests taken at each Games has increased dramatically with over a thousand tests being carried out in Beijing, 2008.

 

Olympic Games

 

Tests

Positive Tests

Barcelona, 1992

1873

5

Lillehammer, 1994

529

0

Atlanta, 1996

2000

6

Nagano, 1998

621

1

Sydney, 2000

2100

11

Salt Lake, 2002

825

7

Athens, 2004

2815

17

Torino, 2006

1219

1

Beijing, 2008

4900

9

Total

16882

57

 

Paralympic Games

 

Tests

Positive Tests

Barcelona, 1992

300

3

Lillehammer, 1994

49

0

Atlanta, 1996

450

0

Nagano, 1998

52

0

Sydney, 2000

630

11

Salt Lake, 2002

97

1

Athens, 2004

735

10

Torino, 2006

242

0

Beijing, 2008

1155

3

Total

3710

28

Doping tests at recent Summer and Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games

Dope testing at the Winter Paralympic Games began in Tignes, 1992 and despite a steadily increasing number of tests at subsequent Games the first and only case of a positive test at a Winter Paralympic Games occurred in Salt Lake in 2002 when German Nordic skier Thomas Oelsner tested positive after winning two gold medals in men’s standing biathlon events. As can be seen in the table above there has only been one Summer Paralympic Games (Atlanta, 1996) where no positive tests have been returned during the Games since 1992. The other four Summer Games have returned a total of 27 positive tests. In the same period there have been 48 positive tests at Olympic Summer Games. Perhaps a little surprisingly this means that the Summer Paralympic Games have returned one positive test for every 121 tests carried out, whereas the rate for the Summer Olympic Games is one positive test for every 285 tests carried out. However, it should be pointed out that the vast majority of these positive tests (19 out of 27) have all occurred in one sport – powerlifting. Introduced as a sport in Sydney 2000 nearly all the positive tests that occurred in both Sydney (10 out of 11) and Athens (6 out of 10) four years later were in powerlifting. This caused those in charge of the sport to severely tighten up the rules on doping and it is satisfying the see that although three powerlifters were caught in Beijing the number of positive tests has been reduced dramatically. Although, it should also be noted that the three powerlifters were the only positive tests at the Beijing Paralympic Games and that an Iranian powerlifter was recently banned for doping in the lead up to the London Paralympic Games. If powerlifting is removed from the equation then the number of positive tests drops from 1 for every 121 tests carried out to 1 for every 409 tests carried out – well below the rate for the Olympic Summer Games.

The table below breaks the 27 positive doping tests that have been found at Summer Paralympic Games down by continental affiliation and gender of the athletes concerned. It can clearly be seen that the majority of positive tests have occurred with athletes from Europe and Asia and that 89 per cent of all positive tests were from male athletes.

Games

Africa

Americas

Asia

Europe

Barcelona,1992

0

1

0

2

Atlanta, 1996

0

0

0

0

Sydney, 2000

1

1

3

6

Athens, 2004

0

1

3

6

Beijing, 2008

1

0

1

1

Total

2

3

7

15

Games

Oceania

Total

Male

Female

Barcelona,1992

0

3

3

0

Atlanta, 1996

0

0

0

0

Sydney, 2000

0

11

10

1

Athens, 2004

0

10

9

1

Beijing, 2008

0

3

2

1

Total

0

27

24

3

Positive summer Paralympic Games doping tests by continental association and gender since Barcelona, 1992

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