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Paralympic eligibility raising questions

Athletes may be excluded over verification woes

Athletes with intellectual disabilities could be prevented from participating in next year's Paralympic events unless a new system for verifying eligibility is put in place.

A medals scandal following the Sydney Paralympics — in which a Spanish athlete confessed that he and others on his gold medal-winning basketball team are not intellectually disabled — has left the validity of 94 medals in question. Now the International Paralympic Committee is clamping down on the process used to assess and certify intellectually disabled athletes. The IPC passed five separate resolutions involving the issue during a daylong meeting Friday in Salt Lake City.

"The process has to be infallible," said IPC President Robert Steadward.

In its first resolution, the IPC states that its findings "have proven beyond doubt that the process of assessment and certification of intellectually disabled athletes are not properly carried out, supervised or audited."

Eligibility questions first arose in December, when the Spanish Paralympic basketball team member came forward. Ten of the 12 athletes on his team have since relinquished their medals.

An IPC investigation found inconsistencies and problems with the eligibility forms of 157 of the 244 athletes with intellectual disabilities who competed in Sydney, Steadward said.

Ninety-four of those athletes earned medals. That's nearly all of the 132 total medals awarded during that portion of the Games.

So far, the investigation has focused only on the eligibility forms themselves, not on the athletes. Steadward said that outside of the situation with the Spanish team, he was unsure if there were other deliberate attempts to defraud the Paralympic Games.

And while an invalid form itself does not necessarily mean that an athlete is not intellectually disabled, the IPC has asked each national Paralympic Committee to re-verify the eligibility of its athletes, IPC spokeswoman Susanne Reiff said. So far, no additional medals have been withdrawn by the IPC, she said.

The IPC relies on the International Sports Federation for Athletes with an Intellectual Disability (INAS-FID) to verify the eligibility of athletes.

Investigators found a dozen different forms being used to collect eligibility information. There was also no consistency in who was authorized to verify intellectual disabilities. More than 40 categories of professionals, from doctors to school officials, signed the documents, Steadward said.

The IPC suspended INAS-FID's membership in the Paralympic organization until changes are made but has set no deadline.

Athletes with intellectual disabilities competed on a limited scale in the Paralympics for the first time during the 1996 Atlanta event. No apparent discrepancies arose during those Games, nor during the VII Winter Paralympic Games in Nagano in 1998.

About 40 athletes — all of whom compete in cross-country events — could potentially be kept out of the Salt Lake Paralympic Games next March, Steadward said.

In the interim, athletes with intellectual disabilities will have the opportunity to obtain provisional certification of eligibility in order to participate in IPC-sanctioned events.