SII Focus 2nd November 2017

Paralympic classification system allegedly open to abuse

Evidence given to a Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee hearing at the UK Parliament has alleged that para athletes are deliberately exaggerating their disabilities in order to cheat the International Paralympic Committee’s (IPC) classification system, but are afraid to speak out through fear of being ostracised. This is supported by independent whistleblowers who have come forward to The Sports Integrity Initiative, who have also asked not to be named.

Written evidence submitted by Mark Hanson, the father of a swimmer given S8 classification by British Swimming, alleges that a wheelchair has been bought on eBay by the father of another swimmer in an attempt to get his daughter down to an S7 classification. Hanson also alleges that British Swimming and the IPC are aware that such subterfuge is occurring. In his written evidence (PDF below), Hanson also alleges that a number of British swimmers have been reclassified down into lower categories after posting slower times, only to break records as soon as they are reclassified.

One name that comes up in both Hanson’s written evidence and whistleblower evidence provided to The Sports Integrity Initiative is Australian Lakeisha Patterson, who has won six Paralympic medals. Hanson says he has provided photographic evidence to the IPC which he alleges proves that her claim that early onset of Parkinson’s disease has led to Cerebral Palsy affecting her left side is false.

It is alleged that a video during her 2014 classification in Brazil shows her swimming with a clawed hand, yet a video from the Australian Championships three weeks earlier shows her swimming ‘normally’. The allegation is that she changed her stroke to meet the classification requirements.

Whistleblowers allege that the physiotherapists that work alongside such athletes are aware of what is going on. They also allege that video and documentary evidence regarding misrepresentation regarding classifications has been provided to the IPC and to national Paralympic committees. It is alleged that potential evidence has then disappeared from the social media sites of para athletes.

Bethany Woodward

Bethany Woodward won medals at the London 2012 Paralympics and at the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games. After a previous investigation into the classification system by BBC Radio 4, she handed back a relay medal, telling the BBC that the inclusion of one of her team mates was “giving us an unfair advantage”.

In her written evidence (PDF below), she alleges that Paula Dunn, UK Athletics Paralympic Performance Manager, ignored concerns about whether athletes from other countries had been correctly classified, and sent a 17 December 2015 email to athletes expressing her ‘dissatisfaction’ with people raising concerns about classification. ‘The final straw was a team meeting following the Dec 15 email where PD went a step further, her tone was more aggressive and she appeared to have lost control’, writes Woodward. ‘She made a comparison between drug doping and classification and stated that when she was an athlete doping was not in the public domain and so athletes could not raise concerns as they wouldn’t be believed. She stated that classification is in the same position. She again referred to legal action. The team captain at the time, was sitting behind me, he noticed that I was becoming distressed. He leant over and told me to ignore what was being said and advised me that I couldn’t beat the system. He then stood up and pointed out to PD that she was frightening people. She then climbed down.’

In her written evidence, Woodward also alleges that Paralympic organisations such as the IPC, British Paralympic Association (BPA) and British Athletics (BA) ignored her concerns. She said that she worked with Michael Breen, father of long jump world champion Olivia Breen, in order to force them to address the issues she raised. She alleges that BA Performance Director, Neil Black, refused to meet Breen to discuss their concerns. ‘I have watched as he has systematically failed to be able to have his concerns dealt with openly and independently’, she writes.

Interestingly, Woodward also outlines a pattern of legal threats issued to news organisations that she had spoken to. ‘I discovered that British Athletics will attempt to prevent, through the use of legal action, the reporting of concerns even though they know there are no procedures for dealing with them (Sunday Times, Sky News, Guardian, BBC)’, she writes.

Written evidence submitted by Woodward’s mother, Georgina Hart, also alleges that Dunn told the Paralympian’s father that Woodward had no ability to protest about another athlete, plus told him that the IPC never reclassifies anyone who has won a gold medal.

IPC defends system

At the DCMS hearing on Tuesday (video below), the IPC defended its classification system. It also defended its process for examining cases of intentional misrepresentation (IM) within its written evidence, including issues raised by Michael Breen.

‘Every single complaint undergoes an internal assessment that is co- ordinated by the IPC Medical & Scientific Director who also engages the International Sport Federation Head of Classification, Classification Advisory Groups, International Classifiers, IPC Classification Committee members and third party expertise, where circumstances warrant their respective involvement’, reads its evidence (PDF below). ‘In addition, the IPC occasionally will engage external legal counsel to compile information and intelligence on specific files’.

On 11 August 2016, the IPC announced that 80 cases of IM that it had reviewed ahead of the Rio 2016 Paralympics had been dismissed, including 16 swimming cases. In Tuesday’s written evidence, it also alleged that complaints by parents of paralympic athletes were the result of sour grapes.

‘The vast majority of allegations were brought forward by athletes or parents of athletes who either missed out on the final team selection for Rio 2016 or had an issue against the selection of other athletes in the team – in most cases these athletes were direct competitors’, writes the IPC. ‘Globally, a small handful of parents have been very vocal, sending hundreds of email messages to the IPC President, IPC CEO and Senior Management, IPC Classification Committee, IPC partners and media. Responses by the IPC and its legal counsel clarifying the concept of classification, the applicable rules and policies and the procedures were issued, but these were deemed by the complainants to be unsatisfactory.’

The IPC wrote it was ‘surprised’ that Woodward decided to hand back her relay medal. ‘The IPC and World Para Athletics remain unaware of any evidence that she may possess that may question the integrity of her teammates or indicate that they are in the wrong classification’, reads its written submission.

The IPC points out that there is no specific class for athletes with cerebral palsy, which many (but not all) of the allegations raised in the DCMS hearing concern. It insists that the athletes identified in the BBC Radio 4 documentary referenced above are in the correct class for athletes with coordination impairments.

‘Cerebral Palsy would be a Health Condition as identified in the International Standard for Eligible impairments that falls under the category of hypertonia, ataxia or athetosis (International Standard for Eligible impairments, art. 2.6-2.8)’, reads its written evidence. ‘Under the World Para Athletics Classification Rules and Regulations, these athletes are subjected to an athlete evaluation that consists of the measurement of hypertonia, ataxia or athetosis respectively (World Para Athletics Classification Rules and Regulations, appendix 1, art. 2.1.1-2.1.3), after which a sport class will be designated in accordance with World Para Athletics Classification Rules and Regulations, appendix 1, art. 3.1.3.1-3.1.3.4. As identified under section 10 of this report, changes to these measurement methods are due on 1 January 2018.’

Next steps

Asked if the classification system is fit for purpose, Paralympic champion Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson said: “We need to ask the question whether classification is fair and transparent and whether athletes can make an appeal or complaint in an open and fair process. Judged on what I have been told, I don’t believe we can confidently answer that question right now.”

As its written statement suggests, the IPC is confident that its system is fair, however it is introducing changes to the classification system next year. It is not the first time that it has been suggested that the classification systems it uses are not fit for purpose. In September last year, The Sports Integrity Initiative reported how clashes between different criterion for assessing intellectual disability have led to allegations that ‘higher functioning’ athletes are competing in lower intellectual disability classes.

In a statement, the IPC said that it was ‘unable to send anyone to participate in the session due to prior commitments’. The IPC is prepared to dismiss evidence provided to the DMCS Committee and to The Sports Integrity Initiative as sour grapes. However, it is concerning that a climate of fear appears to have developed around reporting classification issues within para sport.

As Woodward highlighted above, news organisations interested in covering her allegations received legal threats not from the athletes concerned, but from sports governing bodies. Many athletes in many categories have been accused in the written evidence reproduced above, but none have been named in media coverage of Tuesday’s hearing, despite being named in written evidence published by the UK Parliament. This suggest that legal threats may still be being issued.

It is also concerning that whistleblowers who came forward to The Sports Integrity Initiative asked to remain anonymous. There was genuine concern that if they spoke ‘on the record’, then repercussions would follow in terms of team selection.

Whilst it is understandable that governing bodies may want to protect athletes from spurious allegations, it is a different matter if repercussions follow from raising a genuine issue. If genuine concerns are being deliberately ignored or sidelined in order to ensure that athletes place higher, than that is a serious allegation that an independent body needs to assess. The IPC have made it clear that they will not be investigating this area, but who regulates the IPC?

There is no disputing the fact that the IPC’s classification system is complicated. It should be and needs to be. However currently, sports administrators responsible for medal tally are responsible for collating medical documentation for Para athletes. They are not qualified to assess such documentation, or check whether it is genuine.

The IPC’s attempt to dismiss allegations due to the fact that there is not a specific category for cerebral palsy is also odd. The allegations concern intentional misrepresentation (IM), and as such, the condition from which an athlete suffers would appear to be secondary to that.

It appears that the IPC’s classification system is not fully trusted. This is a problem that the IPC needs to fix and rather than issuing threats against those that raise issues, it should perhaps work with them to sort the problems out. Then Paralympic athletes would be able to compete on a level playing field without suspicion that others are enjoying an unfair advantage.

• A full transcript of the oral evidence heard by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee on 31 October is available here.

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