Du Toit Lights Up Water Cube; Dark Practices Revealed
Sep 12, 2008
Craig Lord

South African Natalie du Toit, a special example of an athlete who excels in elite world sport and at paralympic level, continued to steal the show at the Water Cube with a third gold medal in Beijing a month after finishing 16th in the 10km marathon. Two more targets for Du Toit on her way to an ambition of winning five paralympic golds. 

Champion in the 100m freestyle and 100m butterfly, she added the 200m medley crown. Inspiring stuff. But not all is well in the world of paralympics. Take this little lot as reported by Reuter and other agencies:

Self-flagellation, mutilation, bladder constriction -- welcome to the world of the Paralympic cheat who reaches for a belt or a sharp object rather than a banned substance to gain an edge in elite competition.

The grisly practice of voluntary autonomic dysreflexia - commonly known as boosting - involves disabled athletes beating, stabbing and strapping parts of the body to provoke an adrenalin rush that might improve their performance by up to 25 per cent, or failing that, kill them.

"We are talking about headaches, gooseflesh, brain damage, arterial disruption...there have even been cases of athletes passing away," said Peter Van de Vliet, medical and scientific director of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC).

While generally not regarded as a widespread problem, adherents were found in all sports that catered to athletes whose disabilities precluded a circular central nervous response, said Van de Vliet, such as those with spinal cord injuries.

In essence, athletes who could harm parts of their bodies without feeling pain. "Typically athletes can induce this through strapping or clamping the bladder or sitting on something sharp because we know that pain stimuli can induce a similar reaction on the...nervous system. We find these athletes in table tennis in severe (disability) classes, swimming, in wheelchair racing, they are in cycling."

Recognised as an unfair advantage and a health threat, boosting entered the IPC's anti-doping code ahead of Athens in 2004 and officials at this month's Beijing Games are keeping a wary eye for tell-tale signs.

High blood pressure readings taken before and after competitions can lead to an athlete's disqualification though no mandatory bans are meted out, unlike in conventional doping cases.

Officials were still working out a suitable process for testing, which invariably could be disruptive to an athlete's preparations before competition, said Van de Vliet. "We call it a health test, and that's the way we introduce it to our athletes. However, it's part of our [anti-]doping programme," he said.

The human spirit is at play everywhere. For better or for worse.