The dark side of the Paralympics: cheating through “boosting”

Published 27 August 2012 | Authored by: Kevin Carpenter

With the start of the London 2012 Paralympic Games less than a week away I came across a disconcerting phenomenon I had never previously been aware of: "boosting". "Boosting" involves intentionally raising one's blood pressure to stimulate the body's energy and endurance, allowing those Paralympians who practice it to artificially enhance their levels of performance. In a survey completed in 2009, funded partly by the International Paralympic Committee ('IPC') and partly by the World Anti-Doping Agency ('WADA'), it was found that nearly a fifth of the 99 Paralympic athletes surveyed had "boosted", which I am sure you would agree is a worrying proportion. Indeed the real figure is thought to be closer to a third.

Those Paralympians who "boost" are those who have spinal cord injuries because although their bodies recognise the pain, and their blood pressure rises as a result, they cannot actually feel it. So in essence athletes deliberately injure themselves in a part of their body where they have no feeling, called voluntarily induced autonomic dysreflexia. The methods used (all of which sound highly unpleasant to those of you reading who do not have spinal cord injuries) range from simply tightening straps too tightly, to tapping nails into the feet, to clamping a catheter or even (and many men will cross their legs at this point) twisting and/or sitting on the scrotum.

However there are two principal troubling aspects to this practice. First medically it can threaten the lives of those who do it. Secondly the integrity of the sport is tainted as "boosting" leads to an artificial enhancement to performance, essentially another form of cheating. It has been termed by some as a doping method unique to sport for athletes with a disability.

Athletes with spinal cord injuries physiologically do not get the same response as able-bodied athletes do from engaging in hard physical sporting activities, namely an increase in blood pressure, which creates a natural enhancement in performance and competitiveness. They "boost" to even out what they see as this competitive imbalance and yet when competing against other Paralympians it actually creates an artificial 'boost' in performance and is for all intents and purposes cheating. More troubling is that, on a purely human level, the athletes who "boost" are posing a grave danger to their health as it can lead to a potentially fatal stroke, brain haemorrhage or heart attack.

So what has the IPC and WADA done to protect the integrity of the Games and most importantly the well-being of the athletes? The IPC banned "boosting" back in 1994 but has yet to find an effective method of testing for it, indeed there is no lab testing at all. Currently a member of the IPC Medical Commission carries out checks on athletes before competition to look for signs of autonomic dysreflexia. The principal sign is that blood pressure is above a certain abnormal 'dangerous' level. One way to circumvent this for example would be to deliberately break a big toe in the course of competition.

An athlete considered to have made a deliberate attempt to induce autonomic dysreflexia will lead to: disqualification from the event and perhaps a subsequent investigation by the IPC Legal and Ethics Committee. However crucially there are no powers to issue bans. WADA is reluctant to intervene in the murky world of "boosting" given it is questionable whether it is a 'prohibited method' under the WADA code and therefore most likely not a doping or banning offence.

Scientists, doctors and academics have suggested a change to the system of classification for Paralympic events that tries to ensure athletes with similar injuries compete against each other. The belief is that this restructuring would go someway to alleviate the desperation that drives most decisions to "boost". Currently the system takes no account of blood pressure and heart rate, yet the IPC has said it has no plans to add physiological characteristics into their classification systems.

Many believe that only a tragic event will bring "boosting" to the full attention of stakeholders in the Paralympic movement. Let's hope this never comes to fruition, especially not at London 2012, which is set to be the most high profile, well-attended and celebrated Paralympic games to date.

About the Author

Kevin Carpenter

Kevin Carpenter

Kevin is a advisor and member of the editorial board for LawInSport, having previously acted as editor. In his day-to-day work he has two roles: as the Principal for his own consultancy business Captivate Legal & Sports Solutions, and Special Counsel for Sports Integrity at leading global sports technology and data company Genius Sports.

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