Athletes, coaches, parents and officials have shed new light on the depth of their concerns about cheating in Paralympic sport in written submissions to a parliamentary inquiry.
After the digital culture media and sport committee heard oral evidence outlining concerns from senior figures such as Lady Tanni Grey-Thompson, an 11-time Paralympic champion, the wide-ranging evidence from those involved with the sport and governing bodies provided more detail on the troubling nature of the claims.
Former Paralympic runner Ian Jones said in his submission that he walked away from his sport after becoming disillusioned with the system.
“In my experience, classification has always been open to manipulation and has never been fit for purpose,” he wrote. “It needs to be completely overhauled to make it safe and fair.”
Kyle Powell, a former Paralympic sprinter, said in his evidence: “When being introduced to the world of para-sport I was amazed and inspired by all of the champions and stories from the team, but after a few years I could see many of the ‘heroes’ seemed as though they were at an unfair advantage gained due to the flaws of the classification system.” As a result of his disenchantment he also quit the sport.
Charlie Bethel, a wheelchair basketball classifier, said that while he thought the system was generally well managed he had witnessed some concerning incidents. He said he told a chief executive of a national governing body about “statements within their sport of ‘inappropriate’ behaviour with regard to classification of a Paralympic athlete”. Bethel went on: “I was told, after being told I knew nothing about classification, that ‘everyone was at it’.”
The father of 16-year-old British swimmer Levana Hanson also gave evidence, saying athletes use wheelchairs when they did not need them, deliberately tiring themselves and taking cold showers to stiffen their muscles before classification to get into categories for those with more severe disabilities.
Mark Hanson said his daughter, who lost her legs because of meningitis when she was four months old and is in the S8 category, was “competing against swimmers with the use of four working limbs that allow them the advantages of a functional dive and tumble turn, with strong leg kick, whilst my daughter has to fall into the pool from the blocks [with] no leg kick or the ability to tumble turn all of which puts her and other amputees … at a massive disadvantage”.
He said he had witnessed one athlete using a wheelchair who did not use one for daily living, “others doing strenuous pool sessions before their classification time slot which is against IPC [International Paralympic Committee] guidelines and swimmers taking cold showers to help stiffen their muscles prior to being examined”.
“A number of British para swimmers who have been reclassified into lower classes have gone on to break world records after posting slower times leading up to their classification,” he added.
An IPC spokesman said: “The IPC strongly refutes any accusations that the classification system in Paralympic sport is broken and not fit for purpose. It is the foundation of Paralympic sport and the IPC athlete classification code aims to improve standards and procedures across all Paralympic sports.”
The statement continued: “What is clear to us after our investigations, and was further underlined at Tuesday’s DCMS hearing, is the need for the IPC to work with our members to refine processes whereby athletes can share their concerns openly regarding classification.
“Athletes should not feel threatened or be silenced by their national federations. At the same time it is absolutely not fair for athletes who have been verified to be in the correct class to continually have their integrity questioned by people who have zero expertise in classification, and such pursuit of them could be seen as harassment or even bullying.”