A BBC radio special report last week aired allegations that athletes are using tape, cold showers and even surgery to cheat the IPC’s classification system and improve their chances of winning and setting records.
The report was a part of BBC’s File on 4 series and touched on an issue that’s becoming more and more talked about in swimming circles. The IPC (International Paralympic Committee) has 14 different classifications in swimming that group together athletes with similar levels of disability to create competitive brackets. Some are fairly straightforward (S11 to S13 are for legally blind athletes, with S11 being completely blind swimmers and S12 and S13 being athletes with lesser visual impairments; S14 is for athletes with intellectual impairments), while others sit on a sliding scale of physical impairment, with athletes classified based on a medical examination and a water test in which a classifier watches an athlete demonstrate his or her water skills and classifies them accordingly.
There have been widespread allegations that many athletes are deliberately gaming the system by exaggerating their physical impairments during the water test to be classified into a category with more-impaired athletes. In swimming, this could theoretically lead to athletes pulling in bigger medal hauls in lower classes and perhaps smashing old world records by massive margins.
The BBC report sheds light on some of the methods accusers suggest the cheating athletes are using. Here’s an excerpt:
The File on 4 investigation interviewed current and former classifiers around the world who all spoke on the condition of anonymity.
They claimed the following tactics were allegedly employed by athletes and their coaches to manipulate the system:
- Swimmers with cerebral palsy put into cold environments in swimwear to make their spasticity [alteration in muscle tone] worse.
- Athletes turning up to classification in wheelchairs when they do not normally use them.
- A swimmer’s arm being strapped up for days, with the tape taken off just before classification so they could not fully stretch their arm.
- An amputee swimmer having more of a limb removed and moving classifications. When questioned about the surgery, they replied “it was to advance their career”.
- Classifiers can also be coaches in the athlete’s sport and compromise the process.
A Paralympic sprinter from Great Britain has actually handed back a relay medal. Bethany Woodward told BBC that she felt that the classification of one of her teammates gave her relay an unfair advantage, and that she didn’t feel she could keep the medal in good conscience.
The BBC report goes on to quote Great Britain’s 2012 Paralympic team coach Peter Eriksson, who says he believes classification should be done by an independent organization, comparing the classifiers role to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s role in keeping sport fair and clean. He also advocates penalties for cheating the classification system, penalties he says should be the same as those for doping violations.