Tuesday, 7 September 2021

Doping at the Tokyo Paralympic Games

As someone with a chronic, progressive disability, I have mixed views about the Paralympics. For me an inspirational story for someone with a disability is surviving another day in good cheer and not being too much of a burden on others. Interestingly as my disability has got worse my feelings about the Paralympics have, if anything, become more conflicted. I suspect what I am feeling is something akin to what I felt about elite sport when I was young. The realisation of a young boy that I was never good enough to play centre forward for the England football team has now been joined by an ageing man who has been reminded that another opportunity for sporting excellence has passed him by. Probably time to see my therapist again! 

Anyway, this is a roundabout way of saying that I watch the Paralympics solely as an example of elite sport and view it on those terms. Studies show that elite sport or even hosting the Olympic Games has no discernible benefit in improving the health of physical activity of the nation. I strongly suspect that the Paralympics likewise have minimal, if any, effect on the physical activity and/or rights of disabled people. But, actually why should we put this “burden of inspiration” on Paralympians. Let’s just treat them as elite athletes in their own right. No more, no less. Neither positive nor negative role models. Just ordinary people doing extraordinary deeds. The same as the Olympians. 

 

Viewed in that light, as I said about London 2012, we should expect the same issues to arise in Paralympic sport with regards to doping. And they do. In fact, Paralympians with spinal cord injuries even have their own unique way of cheating. “Boosting” by blocking a catheter, squeezing a scrotum or breaking a toe can increase performance by inducing a pain free rise in blood pressure. Even in more “normal” doping methods, Paralympians equal or outshine Olympians. We don’t have the Tokyo numbers yet, but in Rio 2016, roughly the same number of doping tests per competitor were carried out at the Olympics and the Paralympics. The Paralympians “won” by having 0.71% positive tests compared to the Olympians 0.59%. 

 

So let’s raise a “tainted” toast to Marcin Polak, the Polish visually impaired tandem cyclist. Polak ‘won’ a bronze medal on August 25, but then was informed two days later that he had tested positive for the blood booster EPO in an earlier out of competition test on August 2 and so had to cut short his Paralympic “journey” [1]. Polak reminds us that Paralympians are the same as Olympians in all ways, good bad and ugly. And that’s why – on reflection – I think I’ll carry on watching the Paralympics after all. Next stop Paris......

 


[1] For those wondering why Polack was allowed to compete on August 25,when his positive test sample was collected on August 2, this is a most likely due to the peculiarity of EPO testing. The interpretation of the test gel is somewhat subjective, so requires independent verification by a second anti-doping laboratory. So the Warsaw positive result had to be re-analysed, and confirmed  by the Tokyo lab, before the athlete would have been informed.  Hence the reason for the delay.  

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