Boosting: Dark Secret of Paralympic Athletes or Justifiable Performance Enhancer

Craig ChristopherAnalyst IAugust 30, 2012

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 18:  Ryley Batt (#3) of Australia battles with Andreas Collin (#14) and Per-Johan Uhlmann (#9) of Sweden during day 1 of the LOCOG Test Event for London 2012 International Invitational Wheelchair Rugby Tournament match between Sweden and Australia at Basketball Arena on April 18, 2012 in London, England.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Would you deliberately break a toe if it helped you perform better at your chosen sport? How about twisting your scrotum (assuming you have one)?

As bizarre and eye-watering as it sounds, these are both tactics used by wheelchair bound athletes to improve their performance in a practice innocuously known as “boosting”.  

A little known side effect of spinal cord injuries is low blood pressure or an inability to regulate blood pressure. Apparently, by causing pain—even though the athletes don’t actually feel the pain—it shocks the body into increasing the blood pressure through a process called autonomic dysreflexia.

Other ways of producing pain stimuli used to induce the condition "include deliberately breaking small bones, sitting on a pin, using tight leg straps or overfilling the bladder by clamping a catheter," The Guardian reports.

That’s serious commitment to your sport.

While it could be argued that all athletes inflict pain on themselves to achieve their best, these particular practices can lead to stroke, internal bleeding and even death.

It’s like using performance enhancing drugs, but with the negative side-effects hitting immediately instead of after a long career.

According to ABC News (Australia), boosting is most prevalent in wheelchair team sports like basketball and rugby. Having watched these two sports, it’s difficult to see why they need to deliberately hurt themselves, the sports seem brutal enough.

Boosting has been outlawed by the International Paralympic Committee since 1994.

Of course, it could be argued that this is just the athlete’s way of getting the best out of a body that doesn’t work at its optimum, and as it doesn’t involve using drugs, there’s no problem.

Wiser heads, however, have declared it cheating. I’m just glad I don’t have the job of checking athletes to find out if their catheter is clamped or scrotum twisted.

Cheating in any sport undermines the core principle of sporting endeavour—let the best man, woman or team win.

When cheating occurs in Paralympic sports, it seems even more reprehensible.

The gold medal for poor taste cheating must go to the Spanish learning-disabled Paralympic basketball team at the Sydney 2000 Games, They were found to have 10 of 12 team members with no disability whatsoever.

How anyone’s conscience could allow them to get involved in that sort of thing is a complete mystery.

Boosting, however, appears to be an understandable and arguably reasonable approach to a problem unique to athletes with spinal cord injuries. Nevertheless, it is illegal and authorities will be on the lookout throughout these Games.

Let’s hope they don’t find it.