Classification controversy marks terrible coming of age for Paralympic sport – The Guardian

A couple of decades ago very few people paid attention to Paralympic sport. It was patronisingly considered by some to be a few plucky people in wheelchairs making their way around a track as best they could.

Tuesday’s evidence session into governance in Paralympic sport at the digital, culture, media and sport select committee showed just how far the sport has come.

It has become elite and has developed into a lucrative global activity with sponsorship deals, prestigious medals and TV contracts. Sadly as the sport has increased in stature, so too have the allegations of corruption and foul play.

The thorny issue of classification in Paralympic sport has been compared to doping in able-bodied sport. There are claims that some athletes exaggerate their disability in order to be placed in a more disabled class giving them an unfair advantage when it comes to winning medals.

The International Paralympic Committee, which oversees international classification of athletes, on Tuesday issued a strong rebuttal of claims that some athletes are deliberately getting themselves into the wrong class (cheating) or innocently ending up in the wrong class.

An IPC spokesman acknowledged that there was a trend to recruit, train and select athletes at the higher end of certain classes but a spokesman said: “Countries are not breaking any rules by doing this as the athletes have been internationally classified and are in the right class.”

Tim Hollingsworth, CEO of the British Paralympic Association, who gave evidence on Tuesday, took a similar view. He said that while certain processes could be made more robust he denied that the current system was not fit for purpose.

According to committee chair, Damian Collins MP, a great deal of evidence had been submitted by athletes who asked to remain anonymous for fear of negative repercussions to their careers if they spoke out.

Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson also said that, in a duty-of-care report she had written for the government, many athletes had spoken to her on condition of anonymity. “I was listening to horrific examples of how people were deselected – bullying, intimidation, sexual harassment and more,” she said.

Michael Breen, father of a Paralympic athlete, Olivia Breen, is one of the few to put his head above the parapet. He has been an outspoken critic of the system. On Tuesday he provided many anonymised examples of athletes he believes are competing in the wrong class. He was instructed not to name any names.

The Guardian first revealed concerns about Paralympic classification before the Rio Paralympics last year. When some of the governing bodies were approached about athletes who had allegedly been wrongly classified, the response was very assertive denials that there was any problem at all.

The fact that a parliamentary select committee is taking evidence on the subject shows how far things have come since the Rio games. In the last few days World Para Athletics has announced changes to classification rules and Hollingsworth has called for changes including the introduction of a whistleblowing policy.

Damian Collins touched on the case of Anne Wafula Strike – a Paralympic wheelchair racer who is now on the board of UK Athletics. Collins said that she lost five years of her career after she was reclassified into a more able-bodied category mid-competition. “These issues are not new,” he said.

It is clear that, as Collins says, some of the concerns date back more than a decade. Recognition from Paralympic sport’s governing bodies that there are flaws in the system is welcome but a thorough and independent investigation is required with the power to ensure that real changes are introduced. Only then will the athletes who are competing and those who are hoping to get involved with Paralympic sport have peace of mind that the sport has been cleaned up and that they can truly compete on a level playing field with their peers.


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