The common perception of the Paralympics is that they provide the international competition of the Olympics without any of the messy corporate overtones or attempted cheating. For the most part, that first aspect is largely true. But the idea that Paralympians never cheat couldn't be further from the truth.
That became clear just days before the Aug. 29 opening of the Games after the publication of a BBC report which cited a series of experts who claimed the practice of "boosting," or hurting oneself to increase blood pressure and performance, is rampant among elite Paralympic athletes. According to the BBC, a study conducted during the Beijing Paralympic Games found that approximately 17 percent of the athletes on hand admitted to using boosting in the past to gain a competitive advantage. More troublingly, one scientist estimated that a more accurate account of Paralympians might find as many as 30 percent have boosted, despite serious side effects.
The tactics used to bring the pain that leads to increased blood pressure are startling, too. According to BBC sources, they run the gamut from not releasing urine to cracking or breaking toes with a hammer. In between, athletes have tried sitting on a drawing pin, using tightened leg straps and sitting on their own scrotum.
At least one athlete has even stepped forward to admit that he used electrical currents attached to his body to jump start his boosting.
While the concept might seem strange, the results are backed up by simple science. Athletes with spinal chord injuries do not get the blood pressure and heart rate increases that come from vigorous aerobic exercise as able-bodied athletes typically do. To make up that difference -- and allow the body to train harder, thereby increasing fitness and results -- paraplegics will intentionally cause their bodies harm, which increases their blood pressure and allows them to compete more vigorously.
The ways these athletes hurt themselves are both everyday and much more elaborate, as one competitive climber attested to the BBC.
"I tried several different ways of doing it. You can allow your bladder to fill, basically don't go to the bathroom for a few hours and let that pain from your bladder do it," Canadian quadriplegic climber Brad Zdanivsky told the BBC. "Some people do that in sports by clipping off a catheter to let the bladder fill -- that's the easiest and the most common -- and you can quickly get rid of that pain stimulus by letting the urine drain out.
"I took it a notch further by using an electrical stimulus on my leg, my toe and even my testicles."
That's right, a paralyzed athlete was using electrical stimuli on his testicles to help him perform better. That certainly seems about as sinister as some of the more traditional methods of cheating endorsed by able-bodied athletes.
Fittingly, just as blood doping and steroids come with serious side effects, so does boosting. According to Zdanivsky, boosting brings a significant risk of stroke. For those health risks and in the interest of fair competition, the International Paralympic Committee officially banned boosting in 1994. The enforcement behind enforcing that ban focuses on blood pressure checks for athletes before events begin, yet in limited use during the Beijing Games -- only 20 blood pressure checks were performed -- no athletes were found to be afoul of traditional blood pressure levels.
Those statistics aren't convincing for academics and medical professionals like the University of British Columbia's Dr. Andrei Krassioukov, who said the practice of boosting was a legitimate threat to the Paralympic community.
"As a physician I totally understand why these Olympians are doing this, but as a scientist I am horrified with these events," Krassioukov told the BBC.
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