27 September 2018

New allegations of Paralympic classification cheating

The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) is investigating a British Paralympic medalist due to allegations that they duped the classification system, a BBC investigation into new allegations of cheating in para sport has revealed. Parents, coaches, and athletes told the BBC that some para athletes are continuing to exaggerate disabilities – or are even faking them – in order to win medals. 

Amanda Reid (Fowler)

The BBC’s investigation focuses on Australian athlete, Amanda Reid (Fowler). Simon Watkins, a Welsh swimming coach who has worked with Australian Paralympic swimming teams from 2013 through to 2016, states that Amanda was originally classified as an S14 swimmer, which refers to intellectual impairment, in 2012.

Watkins said that his concerns about Amanda began after her mother approached his wife to ask about how a physical classification would be assessed. He said that questions developed into statements that Amanda had a rare genetic disorder, upon which he told the mother that Amanda did not have a physical disability.

Ten months later, Watkins alleges that he was approached by Swimming Australia, who informed him that Amanda was attempting to assert that she suffered from a physical disability. In 2014, Watkins sent Amanda home from a training camp over concerns about her commitment. 

In March 2015, Watkins alleges that Amanda returned to competition as an S13 visually impaired athlete. He alleges that she turned up at a competition with a white stick, having been previously able to drive a car.

Watkins’s claims are corroborated by ‘Katie’, an athlete whose identity the BBC has protected. ‘Katie’ alleges that Amanda would walk with the stick out in front of her, and maintained eye contact when talking with her. 

In late 2015, Amanda reappeared as an S8 swimmer with a physical impairment. Watkins alleges that she walked as if she suffered from Cerebral Palsy, but her vision appeared to have returned to normal. Watkins said that his suspicions that she was faking her symptoms were exacerbated when she appeared to copy the stance that another swimmer adopted whilst on the blocks.

Amanda won a Silver Medal as a cyclist at the Rio 2016 Paralympics in the 500m Time Trial C1-3. Watkins said that she was walking with her foot turned in and holding her arm. 

Footage of her walking in flip-flops, and of her throwing a bag into her car boot at the Rio 2016 Paralympics was shown to Neurologist Richard Grünewald by the BBC. He argued that use of flip-flops would be impossible for somebody with Cerebral Palsy, and that symptoms do not appear and disappear, as Cerebral Palsy is a form of permanent brain damage.

Amanda Reid (Fowler) and her mother did not respond to questions from the BBC. The International Cycling Union (UCI) told reporters that it had followed the normal classification process, and Swimming Australia said that her classification was “ongoing” until she disappeared from competitive swimming.

Lakeisha Patterson

Another athlete who has been alleged to have cheated the classification system is Australian Lakeisha Patterson, who won Gold Medals in the 400m S8 Swimming and 4x100m freestyle at the Rio 2016 Paralympics, and Golds in the 50m and 100m S8 freestyle at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. Patterson’s S8 classification is based upon restricted movement due to Cerebral Palsy left hemiplegia. 

The Sports Integrity Initiative has received a video which shows Patterson walking in flip-flops; as well as images of her using her left hand in a normal manner. The reason this is controversial is that during her 2014 classification in Brazil, footage shows her swimming with a clawed hand; the allegation is therefore that she changed her stroke to meet the classification requirements.

In November last year Mark Hanson, the father of a swimmer given an S8 classification by British Swimming, told the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee of the UK Parliament that he had provided evidence to the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) proving that Patterson’s claim that early onset of Parkinson’s disease had led to Cerebral Palsy affecting her left side is false.

International Paralympic Committee 

Hanson’s evidence followed the IPC announcing in August 2016 that it had dismissed 80 cases of alleged ‘intentional misrepresentation’, which included 16 swimming cases. In November last year, its written evidence (PDF below) to the DCMS Committee outlined that the allegations may be due to 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’, wrote 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.’

Under the current system, it is understood that a para athlete’s national and international sporting federation is responsible for their classification. The IPC told the BBC that although it is confident the current system is robust, it is considering strengthening it. This may include the introduction of an international database of classification changes across sport.

British allegations

In November last year Patricia Action, a physiotherapist who worked with the British Paralympic squad, said that she ‘raised concerns’ over the re-classification of Anne Wafula-Strike in evidence submitted to the DCMS Committee. The evidence appeared to back that given by Peter Erikkson, a former Head Coach for UK Athletics (UKA) Paralympic Programme, which was that Ian Thompson, husband of Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson, had asked for a re-classification of Wafula-Strike in order to ensure that Grey-Thompson had less competition in her T53 category.

Kathryn Periac, former Head Coach of the Australian Paralympic team, originally alleged 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. Professor John Brewer, an independent panel member of UK Athletics’ Review into the Disability Classification Process, stated that he ‘found no evidence of deliberate attempts to wrongly classify athletes’.

Can classifiers be duped?

The BBC’s latest investigation suggests that athletes can dupe the system in order to be classified as more disabled, allowing such cheats a greater chance of winning medals. Neurologist Richard Grünewald told the BBC that feigning Cerebral Palsy is relatively easy.

The anonymised athlete ‘Katie’ told the BBC that such behaviour is “almost accepted”, and the IPC has its “head in the sand” over the fact that many athletes are in the wrong classification. Former IPC classifier Robert Shepherd said that he was asked by the IPC to emulate a Cerebral Palsy athlete as part of a test, and the classifier concerned had told him he would have passed the test. Shepherd admitted to the BBC that during his time as an IPC classifier, he may have been duped.

Former British Paralympian Mark Woods told the BBC that seeing somebody heavily fatigued at a classification is a “red flag” that they may be attempting to cheat the system, as fatigue affects how an athlete’s disability manifests itself. He argued that such attempts to cheat the system are similar to boxer Anthony Joshua being re-categorised into a lower weight category. “Unfortunately, some think that playing the system is part of the game”, he said.

A system open to abuse

As in every section of society, where rules are created there will be people that will attempt to cheat them. There is no reason to assume that para sport would be any different. Evidence given to the DCMS Committee of the UK Parliament last year has already highlighted that the system is open to abuse and, unfortunately, such enquires and BBC investigations also signal to cheaters that such abuse is possible.

It is important to emphasise that the two athletes who are alleged to have cheated the system have not responded. If the allegations are correct, as the BBC’s report suggests, then this would indicate that the current Paralympic classification system is very disjointed. It appears that by changing sport, some athletes have been able to cherry-pick in which disability classification they wish to compete, gaining the knowledge required to dupe the classifiers of national associations and international federations. 

However, it would appear that the IPC has recognised this loophole and is attempting to close it. How this will occur remains to be seen, but until a way is found, allegations that some are attempting to cheat the system are likely to persist.

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