SII Focus 10th November 2017

Additional evidence gives opposing views of IPC Classification cheating

Two additional pieces of written evidence given as part of a Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee’s investigation give opposing views as to whether the International Paralympic Committee’s (IPC) classification system is being cheated. Kathryn Periac, former Head Coach of the Australian Paralympic team, alleges that British athletics officials deliberately misled classifiers as to which category two named athletes should fall into. However Professor John Brewer, an independent panel member of UK Athletics’ Review into the Disability Classification Process, states that he ‘found no evidence of deliberate attempts to wrongly classify athletes’.

Periac’s evidence

Periac alleges (PDF below) that Anne Wafula-Strike was reclassified as a T54 athlete rather than a T53 athlete following evidence submitted by other athletes, and that officials assessing her classification prioritised this over actual medical testing. According to IPC classifications, T53 athletes ‘typically have full function of the arms, but not abdominal or lower spinal muscle activity’, whereas T54 athletes ‘have full upper muscle power in the arms and some to full muscle power in the trunk. Athletes may have some function in the legs.’

‘I very clearly remember the physiotherapist conducting the muscle testing on the bench telling [Dr.] John [Bourke] there is no flicker (i.e. not function at all) while she was examining Anne’s trunk and John’s response was blunt and indicated he had no interest in that’, writes Periac. ‘Anne and I were told she was now a T54 athlete and there were no grounds at all for protest […] I have no hesitation in stating that Anne would have been a highly successful T53 competitor, without question a potential podium winner, at both the 2006 World Championships and 2008 Paralympic Games. Her re-classification cost her so much, including many tens of thousands of pounds in Lottery funding and sponsorships from external bodies.’

Periac also alleges that Rebecca Chin was told to vigorously exercise the night before her classification appointment ahead of the 2008 Paralympic World Cup. Periac states that Chin was declared as ineligible to compete in the F44 class, and Periac states that she was instructed to prepare an appeal with the British Paralympic Association (BPA).

The F44 class is described as for ‘any athlete with a unilateral or a combination of lower limb impairment/s where the impairment in only one limb meets the MDC [Minimum Disability Criteria]. Functional loss is seen in one foot, ankle and/or lower leg. The activity limitation in athletics is roughly comparable to that found in an athlete with one through ankle / below knee amputation.’

She alleges that Chin was again told to fatigue herself by ahead of her next classification appointment. ‘At her second classification in Beijing the panel (a different panel as required) classified her as eligible, as an F38’, alleges Periac. ‘The doctor classifying identified that she had cerebral palsy, subsequently confirmed by telephone by her family doctor, who had never told her mother she had CP’.

The F38 class is described as for athletes who have ‘clear evidence of hypertonia, ataxia and/or athetosis on physical assessment that meets the MDC. Impairment is mild to moderate and can be in one to four limbs. Co-ordination and balance in throws may be mildly affected, but overall these athletes are able to run and throw freely using able-bodied techniques.’

‘In the next event, the discus, Rebecca threw very well and won a silver medal’, writes Periac. ‘This was determined by the points system used then as it was a combined F37/38 event. As there were very few F38s the points system favoured the F38 athletes, which was a part of why Rebecca had such a good result. In the post event area Rebecca and I were advised that Rebecca had been observed in competition by the classifiers during the discus competition and classified ineligible, and therefore disqualified. On asking I was advised that there was no avenue of appeal (although there was, but I did not know that at the time). The reason given was that she had shown more function in the competition than she had shown in classification – without question fatiguing herself before classification and obviously resting before competition, contributed to this outcome.’

Periac alleges that Chin was instructed to fatigue herself ahead of classification hearings by her coach Anthony Hughes, which ultimately led to her being stripped of her Beijing 2008 silver medal. ‘I have witnessed other similar situations with athletes coached by him, but none as closely as Rebecca, because I was there with her in the room as she did “what he told me I had to do”’, writes Periac.

Brewer’s evidence

Professor John Brewer was invited by UK Athletics to sit as an independent member of the panel tasked with reviewing the classification process of athletes in the UK. The resulting Review into the Disability Classification Process was published in March this year (PDF below). It found that ‘there was some lack of confidence in the UKA national classification system amongst a small number of non-UKA staff, and some concern that the system is open to exploitation’, and mentioned ‘anecdotal evidence of exploitation of the UKA national classification system by a minority of athletes which in some instances may not have been intentional’. It also found that the classification system could be abused ‘should an athlete or support personnel be sufficiently motivated’, but found that this issue was not confined to athletics, but was present across Paralympic sport.

As previously mentioned, Brewer’s written submission (PDF below) mentions that he found no evidence of attempts to wrongly classify athletes. ‘However, it was clear that the process does have the potential for athletes to deliberately misrepresent and exaggerate the extent of their disability’, he writes. ‘I was also made aware of athletes who decide to deliberately refrain from maximising their potential by not training to the maximum of their ability’.

‘Perhaps the biggest area of contention is the classification of T37 and T38 athletes, and it is important to accept that athletes within these categories will have a “disability range” placing some on the margins of either the higher or lower category’, he writes. ‘As a sport and exercise scientist, it is no surprise to me that athletes in – for example – the T37 category who are close to being T38, are more likely to be capable of beating athletes in the same category, but who are borderline T36. This is a physiological inevitability, and when selection is based on winning medals, it is inevitable that athletes who often appear to have less disability than others in the same category, are those who are selected and who win medals. This is compounded with conditions such as MS, where functional ability and performance can vary on a cyclical basis. An athlete rightly classified as T37 on the day of their classification review may be capable of T38 functionality on the day of competition (or vice versa). Again, this can be a function of physiology, not deliberate cheating or incorrect classification. During the review, I sought possible solutions, which included narrowing the categories (to create the equivalent, for example of T37, T37.5, T38 etc), to mitigate inter-category differences in disability. However, it was clear that this was not feasible, due to likely small numbers in many events, and the classification difficulties this would present.’

Brewer was dismissive of the motives behind evidence submitted by Michael Breen, father of long jump world champion Olivia Breen and an experienced sports lawyer. Breen submitted a large amount of evidence to the DCMS Committee, which said at the 31 October oral hearing (PDF below) that it required further examination before it could be published.

Brewer writes that emails from Breen indicated ‘that regardless of the recommendations in the review, there was a clear and unwavering desire for specific individuals to be re-classified (2 athletes in particular), or in the case of staff, disciplined and dismissed. This would not have been possible based on the evidence that was provided, and these issues had been previously investigated by UKA, and were not part of the review.’ Brewer also mentions that ‘throughout my dialogue with Mr Breen, I received significant criticism of (named) individual athletes, UKA staff’. 

Conclusion

The Sports Integrity Initiative has previously reported about concerns that sporting organisations refused to investigate complaints about classification, that they suggested such concerns were the result of ‘sour grapes’ and sought legal action against news organisations who sought to report them. The UK Athletics Review and Brewer confirm that manipulation of the classification process is possible, yet at the same time Brewer dismisses the detailed evidence of a respected sports lawyer (Breen) as being motivated by similar ‘sour grapes’.

It has been acknowledged that the system is open to abuse, but claimed that no evidence of such abuse exists. This is despite evidence concerning athletes, coaches and doctors involved in such abuse having been directly presented to the sporting organisations that govern Paralympic sport (and to the DCMS Committee). Such a standpoint is likely to further fuel concerns that such sporting organisations do not want to investigate and discipline those responsible for such abuse.

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