Former member of the Australian Dolphins para swimming team Ashleigh Cockburn penned a first-person account of her experience with intentional misrepresentation during her career earlier this week, as the nation is coming under fire for the handling of Shayna Jack‘s positive drug tests.
Para swimmers are classified into various categories to even the playing field within each race. Each swimmer is classified as having either a physical, visual, or intellectual impairment, and undergoes physical, technical in-sport, and technical in-competition assessments to reach a proper classification.
Para swimming has been marred in recent years by cases of intentional misrepresentation, which occurs when an athlete makes their impairment seem more severe in order to be put into the wrong disability class.
“As a former member of the team, I witnessed intentional misrepresentation become not only accepted but expected,” Cockburn writes. “Throughout my career, I heard athletes casually mention how they had been thrown in the snow prior to classification so their muscles and joints were far stiffer than usual, or how they’d been instructed by someone higher up to ‘throw on a limp’ during testing.”
She goes on to say that she also witnessed teammates binding their limbs or pushing themselves to physical exhaustion just ahead of classification tests to “restrict flexibility, strength and fine motor skills” or “reduce stamina and power.”
“There were also athletes who had previously competed as able-bodied who borrowed a disability for classification.”
Cockburn said that coaches commonly train their swimmers to move in a way that mimics the symptoms of Cerebral Palsy, specifically.
Another unnamed athlete, said to be a current Australian Paralympic swimmer said international misrepresentation is “very common,” and that “no one is not aware.” A third athlete said she felt “helpless” in the situation, and that it is “impossible to generate change or even speak out against the systemised deceit for fear of legal repercussions and the impact it would have on her own career.”
Athletes who misrepresent themselves can break records and claim taxpayer-funded grants, scholarships and sponsorships, Cockburn explained.
The International Paralympic Committee told Cockburn that intentional misrepresentation is “a concern but not an issue.”
Refuting Cockburn’s claims, a spokesman for the Australian Paralympic committee said: “Any suggestion that the APC has condoned cheating; has any knowledge of misconduct related to classification; or is involved in such misconduct, is refuted in the strongest possible terms.”