Boosting: Why some athletes with disabilities self-harm for a competitive edge

Brad Zdanivsky scales the "Uncle Ben's Climb" in Squamish, BC in 2009. Brad says he needs to use "boosting" to complete difficult climbs. (Photo Chris Joseph)


Elite athletes are often told to work through their pain... it may be more than merely stoic advice. Some athletes with disabilities have discovered injuring themselves enhances their performance. It works so well, it's against the rules. The International Paralympic Committee has banned the practice. but that hasn't stopped some athletes to continue to seek out the competitive edge.

The world's paralympic athletes have done a lot to boost national pride at the 2014 Sochi games. Whether they've done any boosting themselves is a secret. Boosting is a performance enhancing technique that some call cheating and others call leveling the playing field. Some athletes with spinal cord injuries deliberately hurt themselves which "boosts" their blood pressure -- and apparently their performance. Methods include sitting on tacks, uncomfortably full bladders, electrical shocks to the legs or genitals and even breaking toes. The practice was banned in 1994 by the International Paralympic Committee but it's almost impossible to detect.

For obvious reasons, paralympians are reluctant to talk about it but Brad Zdanivsky has been open about his need to boost. He's a quadriplegic rock climber. Brad was an avid climber before a car accident crushed his spine. He wasn't prepared to give up his sport but found he couldn't do it without "boosting".

Listen to him describe what it feels like to get an electric shock... on the side of a mountain.

Brad is well known for having successfully climbed "The Chief," a magnet for climbers in Squamish BC. Brad joined us from our Vancouver studio.

Yagesh Bhambhani has proven that "boosting" does indeed give some athletes with spinal cord injuries a competitive edge. He is a profesor in the Faculty of Rehabilitation at the University of Alberta, and has served on the International Paralympic Sports Sciences Committee at the 2008 Beijing Olympics Yagesh Bhambhani was in Edmonton.

What do you think of this...? Do you think boosting is a fair way to enhance performance, or should the ban stay in place? And, if you're an athlete who boosts, let us know what it does for you?

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This segment was produced by CBC's Yvonne Gall.

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