Athletes and officials in the world of disabled sports have long campaigned for more respect and recognition. They point out that disabled athletes work as hard, devote as many hours to training and are in most ways the equal of their able-bodied counterparts.
Events at this summer's Paralympic Games at Barcelona confirmed what officials have been saying. For the first time, disabled athletes tested positive for banned drugs at their most prestigious competition. The drug scandal offers proof that--just like able-bodied athletes--some disabled athletes are willing to cheat to win.
In the first full-scale testing conducted at a Paralympic Games, one athlete was disqualified after being found positive for anabolic steroids and another tested positive, though his gold medal was reinstated. In the strangest case, David Kiley of San Dimas took a painkiller that contained banned substances, and the entire U.S. men's wheelchair basketball team lost its gold medal.
Even before the Games, three Canadian weightlifters were found to be drug-positive at a national training camp and were not sent to Barcelona.
These cases illustrate the double-edged sword of drug testing: catching athletes who take performance-enchancing drugs, such as steroids or amphetamines, and penalizing unsuspecting athletes who take cold preparations, asthma medications and mild painkillers.
These are the problems that the able-bodied athletic world has been struggling with since drug testing was introduced at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. Now the perplexing questions of drugs and the proper penalty for their improper use have been inherited by the community of disabled sports. The events in Barcelona also have raised the question of the appropriateness of not allowing painkillers and muscle relaxants among disabled athletes--medications many disabled persons require on a daily basis. Both types of drugs are on the International Olympic Committee's banned list.
As a result of the controversy, many of the sport's administrators wish they had never heard of drug testing.
"In retrospect, we should have paid more attention to the whole question of drug testing, especially the pitfalls," said Paul DePace, chairman of the National Wheelchair Athletic Assn. and head of the U.S. delegation in Barcelona.
The case of David Kiley best illustrates the pitfalls.
Kiley, 39, is recognized as the finest wheelchair basketball player in the world. A star high school athlete, Kiley damaged his spinal cord in 1973 when he slid down a snowy slope in an inner tube and slammed, back-first, into a tree. The accident left Kiley partially paralyzed from the waist down.
Barcelona was his fifth Paralympics, and he has been a 14-time All-American in wheelchair basketball.
The Barcelona Games were to have been Kiley's last. His hope was to help the United States to its second consecutive gold medal, then retire. As so often happens, dreams collided with reality. Rather than being at the peak of his performance, Kiley felt awful. Because his spinal cord is only partially severed, he still feels pain in his back and legs. These jolts almost resemble electrical shocks, and he experiences them every day of his life.
Kiley, like many disabled persons, has mastered techniques to control the pain. But what he felt in September was a different kind of pain. It was sharp, intense and excruciating.
"What happens is the damaged nerves get set off," he said. "Two or three times a year I deal with this. It's tremendous leg pain. It builds and builds. Nothing stops it."
Such an attack at the Paralympics in 1980 caused Kiley to be hospitalized. In Barcelona, Kiley's coach found him in great pain in his room one day. The coach offered him darvocet, a mild painkiller the coach was taking for back pain. Because he had a game the next day, Kiley refused.
Two days before the United States played in the gold-medal game, Kiley awakened at 2:30 a.m. with intense pain in his legs.
"I lay there, trying to make the pain go away, but it wasn't happening," Kiley said. "Then I did what I've done 100 times before in a similar situation--I took medication."
He remembered the darvocet pill his coach had left, and took it.
"I thought, 'OK, we have a day off tomorrow, I'll be fine.' From an athletic standpoint (as far as the medication impairing his ability to play), I'll be OK. I took it. I'm ultimately responsible."
What happened next may bring about profound change in disabled sports. Two days later, the United States beat the Netherlands to win the gold medal. Moments after the game, Kiley was selected for random testing. Two days after that, he tested positive for a banned substance.