When British swimmer Chloe Davies, 13, found out she had qualified for the London 2012 Paralympics, she screamed with delight and sprinted up and down the stairs of her family’s home in Somerset, England. Her parents, who have said she struggles to keep up with her peers in school, have described her selection for the team as “her greatest achievement.” Yet just four years ago, Davies — who specializes in the 100m backstroke and 200m freestyle — wouldn’t have had the chance to represent her country at the Paralympics. That’s because she has a learning disability, and athletes like her have not been allowed at the Paralympics for over a decade.
This year, however, Davies will be one of 120 in this category competing in three sports: swimming, table tennis and athletics (in the 1500m, shot put and long jump). It’s the first time in 12 years that the mentally-challenged have been included in the paralympics, and the road back to the Games for these competitors was no easy one.
The athletes first competed in the Games in 1996, when the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) added ‘intellectual impairment’ alongside its physical disability categories. In 2000, however, the category fell prey to one of the most brazen acts of cheating in sports history. At the Sydney Games, a Spanish basketball team won gold in the intellectually-disabled category, with ten of its members pretending to have a mental handicap. The deception, revealed after the Games by an undercover Spanish journalist who infiltrated the team as one of its secret able-bodied players, shocked the Paralympic community. The Spanish athletes were stripped of their medals and, in a blow to athletes with intellectual disabilities around the world, the category was eliminated altogether from the Paralympics. Since then, an initiative launched by the IPC and the International Federation for Sport for Para-athletes with an Intellectual Disability (INAS) has set out to find a way of tightening up the eligibility process, and making sure what happened in Sydney would never be repeated.
That meant, first and foremost, making it harder to circumvent controls on competitors. “In 2000, the assessment was a review of the medical information, and that was it,” says Peter Van de Vliet, the medical and scientific director for the International Paralympic Committee. “Someone looked at the files and said, okay, you have a declaration from a psychologist, from a special school, a medical doctor, that all confirm that you have an intellectual impairment. Off you go.” This left the door open for everything from cheating to simple negligence to pollute the process. Now, athletes must submit specific IQ tests, show that their condition affects their ability to perform day-to-day tasks and prove that they’ve had the impairment since before the age of 18. That information, called primary evidence, is then assessed by a panel of independent psychology experts.
If athletes pass this criteria, then they must show that their impairment actually hurts their skill at a specific sport. The modification put requirements for athletes with intellectual impairments in line with other Paralympic athletes, whose disabilities quite visibly keep them from running, throwing and swimming as well as able-bodied athletes. In both 1996 and 2000, by contrast, officials had wrongly assumed that intellectual disabilities always negatively affected an athlete’s sporting abilities. When it comes to table tennis, says Van de Vliet, some on the autistic spectrum have no disability whatsoever. “They are equally good, I would say, as any Chinese player who is at the Olympics.”
To test their sport-specific abilities, candidates are first assessed on overall ‘sports intelligence’ which includes reaction time, memory, concentration and spatial perception. Athletes take computer and paper tests, repeating sequences of blocks and copying 3D cube patterns. Potential Paralympians must score below the level of an able-bodied athlete to continue.
Next come the sport-specific tests. For table tennis, this involves returning a serve from a ‘table tennis robot’ to a specific spot. Athletes get several chances to hit the target with the ball. “We know, with the able-bodied, that the second ball has increased degree of accuracy to the target,” says Van de Vliet, who was involved as a researcher with the development of the test. “This does not seem to be the case with intellectually impaired athletes. There’s no learning from that experience.”
Sports scientists test for the same learning difficulty when it comes to the long jump. “We look at the ability of an individual at certain set distances to anticipate for a take off point. We know from experience that able-bodied individuals learn from the first attempt,” says Van de Vliet. “An individual with an intellectual impairment does not.”
Athletes with intellectual impairment also struggle with tactics and pacing, which is why those applying to run in the 1500m must show that they find those skills difficult. “We set up markers around the track and we ask people to adjust their pace, to run either a slower or faster speed between different markers,” says Jan Burns, head of eligibility for INAS and professor of applied psychology at Canterbury Christ Church University. “We measure the accuracy at which they can change their pace.” Swimmers like Davies are tested slightly differently: by checking for the number of strokes over a certain distance, which tends to be lower than the stroke ratio for people without intellectual impairments.
When the tests are completed, it is the athletes that perform poorly in relation to able-bodied athletes who are allowed through. “If the athlete fails on those components [of sporting skill], then you say, this is exactly why this athlete fits this category,” says Van de Vliet.
It might seem counter-intuitive to select athletes specifically because they’re not particularly good at a sport. But Van de Vliet says it’s no different from the standard applied to Paralympians with physical impairments. “If you excel in performance,” he says, “then that impairment is not limiting your ability to compete on an equal basis” with the able-bodied.
Now that athletes with intellectual impairment have rejoined the Paralympics, sports researchers are looking to the future. They’re designing more tests that will allow competitors in a broader range of sports, including a basketball test that will look at an athlete’s ability to comprehend tactics, shoot accurately and dribble well.
Bringing back the same sport that led to the cheating scandal may seem like tempting fate, but it’s hard to see how the same sort of foul play that went on in Sydney could ever be repeated at the Paralympics. If competitors try to pretend they’re worse at a sport than they really are to get into the Games, Van der Vliet says testing overseen by medical and technical experts will catch them out. “When you see inconsistent testing patterns, it should be kind of a red flag,” he says. Burns agrees. “It’s so sophisticated to be able to do that. You’d have to be extremely experienced, know [the system] inside out and practice across so many different tests.”
For swimmers like Davies, it seems all the testing has been worth it. She has said she didn’t expect to get to these Games, and was hoping to compete at the Rio Paralympics in 2016. If the new system for qualifying athletes with intellectual impairments holds up in London, she may just get her wish.