Suddenly though I became aware of the intense and disturbing reality of the spectre of competition even at this most noble of events. Having read other blog posts including Kev Carpenter's I know I am not alone in feeling discomforted and uneasy.
Various articles and surveys have brought to my consciousness the practice of 'boosting'. Athletes with spinal injuries are unable to naturally produce the physical benefits of intense physical activity that able bodied athletes can. For those with severe spinal injuries blood pressure does not ordinarily increase during competition. It has become apparent that many Paralympians sought to circumvent this dilemma by artificially creating this blood pressure rise. They do this by inflicting pain upon themselves, often in grotesque and extreme ways. Whilst they are not able to sense the pain, their bodies do react to it and their blood pressure is consequently increased. Research in 2009 suggested that between one fifth and one third of such athletes utilised this method of performance enhancement. It is called 'boosting'.
Boosting takes many forms. They are mostly eye watering, but bear in mind that the relevant athlete is immune to the direct physical sensations. Athletes have broken (had broken?) toes, inserted implements into limbs, blocked their catheters or even manipulated their private parts! No wonder a lady on the Radio 5 with a disabled daughter just stated that the Paralympics is not real life.
The technical name for this process is 'voluntarily induced autonomic dysreflexia'. It is, sad to say, essentially a form of cheating.
It is a difficult area to Police. The phenomenon can be caused naturally by infection, a blocked tube and other such mishaps of every day disabled life. Tests can be carried out on athletes in advance of the event and if there sistolic rates are outside normal parameters for a person at rest they can be withdrawn from the event unless there is medical evidence to support the athlete having hypertension at rest Those caught would face disqualification from their event, and perhaps a degree of dishonour, but would not be subject to any further ban, so deterrent is a major issue. WADA has kept its distance. It is not doping.
Unfortunately those who feel themselves driven to these lengths to gain an advantage are risking severe health consequences and even death. Possible outcomes range from the relatively minor such as headaches, blurred vision and breathlessness to stroke, heart attack or brain haemorrhage. Boosters claim that they are disadvantaged by the event classifications vis a vis other potential competitors. Blood pressure and heart rates are not currently considered in the classification process, thus encouraging their artificial stimulation in order to gain an advantage, or simply to level the playing field. The International Paralympic Committee has stated that it has no plans to introduce these elements to the classification process.
However uplifting and inspiring the Paralympics prove to be, the spectre of a serious incident, even a fatality, remains a troubling potential outcome.