22nd November 2017

Physiotherapist raised concerns over Wafula-Strike classification

Patricia Acton, a physiotherapist who worked with the British Paralympic squad, has said that she ‘raised concerns’ over the classification of Anne Wafula-Strike in evidence submitted to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee (DCMS) Committee of the UK Parliament. ‘I was surprised that there seemed to be a reluctance to be too open about levels of disability if there was a chance they [athletes] could be classified into a class where they had more chance of winning medals’, reads Acton’s evidence (PDF below). ‘The culture was driven by performance, which I totally understand, but I felt that the duty of care to the athletes was taking second place surrounding classification. When I raised my concerns, I was advised that maybe it would be better if I was not involved if it made me feel uncomfortable.’

Acton’s evidence follows an earlier submission from Peter Eriksson, a former Head Coach for UK Athletics’ (UKA) Paralympic Programme. In that evidence (PDF below), Eriksson alleges that Ian Thompson, husband of Tanni Grey-Thompson, asked for a re-classification of Wafula-Strike to ‘give his personal athlete [Grey-Thompson] less competition’, an approach he labelled ‘unethical’.

This mirrors evidence given earlier by Kathryn Periac, former Head Coach of the Australian Paralympic Team, who alleged that Thompson ‘began to try and engage me in conversation about Anne’s classification being questionable’. Wafula-Strike competed in the same T53 category as Grey-Thompson and came close to her times at the 2006 Paralympic World Cup, before being re-classified as T54 ahead of the 2006 International Paralympic Committee (IPC) World Athletics Championships.

According to IPC classifications, T53 athletes ‘typically have full function of the arms, but not abdominal or lower spinal muscle activity’. 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.’

Acton could not provide exact dates for the reclassification, as ‘all my records were returned to UKA’. Eriksson also alleged that Great Britain coaching staff held all the records relating to the case and that in the case of Wafula-Strike, ‘files disappeared’.

UKA admitted that there had been issues regarding the manipulation of classifications in the past. It argued that prior to the creation of its own Classification System in 2010, all classifications were handled by the IPC. However prior to the creation of a system for dealing with protests and concerns in 2013, UKA refers to a ‘difficult’ period, where protests were a ‘free for all’. As a result, ‘athletes/support staff attempting to get their competitors reclassified as a tactic to affect competition preparation or even their ability to compete was a significant problem for para athletics, as demonstrated by the experiences of Anne Wafula-Strike’, reads its written evidence submitted yesterday (PDF below).

UKA denied allegations made by Michael Breen, sports lawyer and father of long jump world champion Olivia Breen, that Eriksson had manipulated the classification process whilst Head Coach (see Q421 in the transcript of the oral hearing held on 31 October). ‘The accusation that a previous Head Coach for the UKA Paralympic Performance Programme used his position to manipulate the classification of his own athlete to a different or less competitive class is simply untrue’, reads its evidence (PDF below). ‘This athlete was not coached or advised by the Head Coach at the time suggested in the evidence provided, and the classification currently applied to this athlete is correct and has been confirmed by the IPC’.

However UKA did not mention similar allegations that Rebecca Chin was told to vigorously exercise by her coach, Anthony Hughes, in order that she achieve a lower classification in order to maximise medal chances. Chin was stripped of a Beijing 2008 silver medal when she was 16.

Conclusion

The IPC’s Chief of Staff, Mike Peters, is due to speak at the Sports Ethics and Integrity Conference hosted by Sport Wales and Swansea University at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff tomorrow. It was unable to send anybody to the DCMS Committee’s 31 October hearing, due to ‘prior commitments’.

As UKA has absolved itself of all responsibility for classifications prior to 2010, it would appear that the IPC has some questions to answer over how it handled the classification process. The DCMS Committee is likely to be interested in any answers it can give.

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