Paralympics must review classification in light of scandal

It has been a dark month for Paralympic sport. At the beginning of November, 11-time Paralympic champion Tanni Grey-Thompson spoke as a witness to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee, questioning whether the classification of disabilities was ‘fair and transparent’.

Grey-Thompson suggested that Para-athletes were abusing the classification system through the misrepresentation of their disabilities in an attempt to win more medals.

These comments were furthered by the claims from Charlie Bethel, former chief executive of British Wheelchair Basketball, stating that ‘everyone was at it’. Bethel also commented that those running certain Paralympic sports had ‘a complete lack of knowledge’ of the classification process, which allowed their athletes to exploit it.

On top of this, there are accusations that other athletes have been threatened with deselection if they were to talk out against their teammates who they believe to be cheating the system.

So far, such allegations are still to be proven, with stars such as Hannah Cockroft and Sophie Hahn vehemently denying claims that they have undertaken such practices.

What is clear, however, is that Paralympic sport has serious questions to answer and these problems will not go away quickly. If proven to be true, the allegations would mark a scandal on the same scale as that of the
Russian doping in athletics. While Britain rightly condemned Russia, it would be a great embarrassment if similar revelations of institution-supported cheating were to be verified.

It marks a crisis of a scale that has rarely been seen before in Paralympic sport and suggests the advent of the professional era is well and truly over as athletes manipulate the rules to increase their prospects of success, as well as money-making ability.

It far outstretches the level of outcry of empty stadiums at last year’s Paralympics in Rio and is likely to further complicate a movement that has developed a much-increased public awareness and support in recent years, especially in Britain in one of London 2012’s greatest legacies.

The fact that Cockroft and Hahn, who have risen to fame following their success, have had their names mixed up in the scandal gives the claims even greater strength as the benefits of their achievements are clear for all to see.

However, what is important to stress is that many of the allegations have not focused on the faults of individuals but on the ambiguities of the classification process that they are put through.

This was made clear in 2016 by the head of Paralympic classification, Peter van de Vliet, when he declared that “cheating is not endemic” among Para-athletes. He instead suggested that the complexities of the classification system meant that athletes are constantly “pushing the boundaries” of the classes and aiming to maximise their chances of winning medals.

Each classification is determined dependent on the sport that an athlete is competing in and the vagaries of the system were highlighted by how van de Vliet referred to classification as a “concept, but a scientific one”.

Yet, with so much now at stake for athletes in terms of government funding and personal glory, conceptual classifications can surely not be enough. While there should be investigations into the claims that athletes have been cheating the system, it is more important to look at creating a more black-and-white classification process which is harder for athletes to exploit.

It is an important crossroads for Paralympic sport and shows that it has now reached a prestige and importance in public opinion that such decisions are viewed as vital. As such, the movement must adapt to its professionalism and change its classification process so that future athletes cannot exploit it in the same way.

 

Image Courtesy of Berit Watkins

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