The crisis facing the Paralympic movement over alleged abuse of the classification system deepened on Wednesday after claims swimmers are deliberately exaggerating their disability in order to win more medals.
Mark Hanson, whose daughter Levana is a swimmer, claimed one father bought a wheelchair on eBay so his child, who Hanson claimed had always walked unaided, could hoodwink classifiers into thinking the swimmer had a more severe disability.
Tanni Grey-Thompson described the phenomenon of intentional misrepresentation as akin to doping in Olympic sport. A department of culture, media and sport select committee was told some of Britain’s top Paralympic track and field athletes, including Hannah Cockroft and Sophie Hahn, had misrepresented their disability. Cockroft and Hahn strongly refute any suggestion they have cheated the system.
However, several parents of swimmers on the elite British Para-Swimming pathway claimed abuse of classification extends to their sport. Hanson submitted a statement to MPs, which has been seen by the Guardian, in which he recounts an incident he witnessed during a classification assessment.
“A swimmer we have known for over five years was being pushed in a wheelchair by a member of the British Swimming management team,” he said.
“At no time was this swimmer challenged as to why they were in the wheelchair and as soon as receiving their status the wheelchair was not seen again but this swimmer can be seen on videos jumping up and down poolside or running up and down the stairs in the stands.”
Hanson, whose daughter had her legs amputated after contracting meningitis as a baby, said he had also seen swimmers doing strenuous workouts immediately before classification, which is against International Paralympic Committee guidelines, and taking cold showers to help stiffen their muscles before being examined.
He claimed British Swimming warns those who speak up that they risk losing team places. Grey-Thompson said that, during interviews for a report on bullying she authored for the DCMS, other athletes had noted the possibility of deselection as a reason for not publicly raising concerns to governing bodies.
Hanson claimed the issue was happening all over the world, particularly in the UK and Australia where funding for Paralympic sport has rocketed over the past two decades. Tim Hollingsworth, the head of the British Paralympic Association, insisted the system is not broken but Hanson claims his concerns have been ignored.
“I contacted Tim Hollingsworth three years ago saying there was classification cheating going on and never had a reply,” Hanson said. “He said he never received it. There are people willing to come forward as long as it doesn’t go to the national governing bodies because as soon as it does you’re kicked off the programme and they tarnish your name straight away.
“We were told that if we carried on questioning classification it would have a detrimental effect on our daughter. She then lost her place on the England talent programme and our view is that it was a direct consequence of us speaking out.”
British Swimming said it would not comment on individual classification cases but added in a statement that British Swimming “works closely with World Para-Swimming to ensure British swimmers understand the potential consequences of misrepresenting their disability during the classification process. British Swimming works hard to ensure the national classification process is robust, and is supporting World Para-Swimming’s process to review and develop the current international classification system”.
It is not the first time this year that British Para-Swimming has found itself in hot water. In October the governing body’s chairman, Maurice Watkins, publicly apologised to athletes after an independent inquiry into complaints of bullying from 13 Para-swimmers found they and their families faced “unacceptable behaviour”. It also found a former coach, Rob Greenwood, had created a “climate of fear,” although Greenwood disputes the suggestion.