It is not uncommon for organisers of para sport to describe the classification system(s), the process by which athletes are grouped by impairment, as the backbone of the business. Recently, Charlie Bethel, former Chief Executive of British Wheelchair Basketball) stated that classification is the “soul of Paralympic sport.”
Despite this, almost everyone agrees that the classification system is imperfect. There is plenty of room for misinterpretation and cheating. One of the most famous examples comes from Spain. At the 2000 Paralympics, the Spanish intellectually disabled basketball team took home Gold before someone pointed out that they hadn’t actually undergone the necessary medical tests. It was subsequently discovered that 10 of the 12 members of the team had no disability whatsoever, and the Gold was passed on to the Russian team.
What is classification, though, and why does it matter so much?
Put simply, classification is the process by which disabilities are assessed and athletes are organised into groups of similarly-impaired athletes. Each sport has its own method of classification, and the system is rarely perfectly objective. There will always be some people within each classification who are more, or less, significantly impaired than others, simply because everyone’s disability is unique and, by necessity, there are more individuals than there are classification groups.
Unfortunately, there will always be some who intentionally misrepresent their impairment. On some occasions it is national bodies that misrepresent their athletes’ impairments intentionally. This not only makes competition unfair, but also threatens to disrupt entire systems of disability sport. After the Spanish basketball team’s brazen abuse of the system in 2000, athletes with intellectual disabilities were prohibited from taking part in the Paralympic Games in any sport until 2012. The selfish and outlandish actions of a private organisation that formed part of the Spanish Paralympic Committee prevented thousands of athletes around the globe from participating in Paralympic sport for twelve years.
Lately, this issue has been raised once more in the form of allegations that disabled people competing in elite athletics are routinely, deliberately and systematically classified incorrectly. Michael Breen (father of Paralympic sprinter and long jumper, Olivia) has been the main voice saying that there are world-class athletes representing GB who have been inappropriately classified.
For example, Breen alleges that Paula Dunn (GB para-athletics head coach) ‘suggested’ to him that Sophie Hahn is not sufficiently disabled for her classification. Hahn is a T38 sprinter – the same classification as Olivia Breen – and has numerous titles and records to her name. She suffers from cerebral palsy, which affects her mobility and has caused learning difficulties. There is no genuine basis to doubt the validity of her classification.
Breen also named a number of other GB athletes in a list he provided to the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) in May 2016. This included Hannah Cockroft, a veritable medal machine. All of these named athletes were investigate and found to be correctly classified.
Are Breen’s comments just those of ‘a disgruntled father’ – a ‘bully’ on a ‘witch hunt’ (IPC Spokesman, Craig Spence) – or is there a genuine cause for concern? Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, GB’s top wheelchair racer from 1988 to 2006, certainly has concerns. Grey-Thompson conducted research in which she discovered that the GB classification system was being abused and athletes were being warned against speaking out. Any athletes who did try to raise awareness were threatened with deselection or losing their funding.
It is difficult to get down to precisely what is going wrong. Quite apart from the fact that measuring disability is often highly subjective, it does not help that classification is different in every sport and that most athletes are classified by national bodies before an international governing body. Sticking with athletics, though, it is easy to see some of the stumbling blocks.
Take Sophie Hahn (T38) and Hannah Cockroft (T34), two of the athletes named by Michael Bren. The ‘30s’ class is for athletes with a co-ordination disorder, this includes cerebral palsy, stroke, and multiple sclerosis, and so on. T35-38 is for ambulant athletes, and ≤T34 is for wheelchair users. The ‘30’ class in athletics has traditionally been referred to as the ‘cerebral palsy class’, and Breen refers to Hahn as having been given a cerebral palsy classification, despite not having a diagnosis of CP.
Breen says this as if it is evident that Hahn should be in a different classification, but clearly classifiers, both British and international, felt her co-ordination was sufficiently impaired to warrant a T38 classification. Cockroft has also been accused of being misclassified; the accusation against Cockroft is on the basis that she does not have cerebral palsy, but does have a similar co-ordination disorder. This results in her T34 classification as she does not have a spinal cord injury which would place her in the ‘50s’ class.
Where a disability is not as black and white as limb difference there is confusion about which disabilities should fit in where. The system is stressful enough for athletes as it is; interference from national bodies or peeved individuals does not help the situation. Instead, the IPC needs to raise its game. It needs to start thinking about supporting athletes and making the classification procedure far more transparent; classifiers should be held fully accountable for their decisions, whether they are too lenient or too strict.
An entirely separate matter is the wealth of disabilities which, as of the last few years, are no longer considered eligible impairments, but that is definitely a debate for another time. Classification certainly is a pressing issue that needs resolving, and soon.