Steve Long is the father of Paralympic Champion Jessica Long. Long has held multiple World Records, and has won 12 gold medals across 3 summer Paralympics.
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With the Olympics starting soon, there have been the typical stories in the news about athletes attempting to cheat by using prohibited substances. This is commonly referred to as doping. In the Paralympic world, doping is an extremely rare occurrence, but only because there is a better way to cheat. This method of cheating, as some Paralympic swimmers have discovered, has no penalties for the athlete even when their dubious methods are discovered. What could be better for an unscrupulous athlete?
Some Paralympic swimmers are doing what is called intentional misrepresentation (IM). We usually hear about misrepresentation in legal cases when defendants make statements with the intent to deceive or that are known to be false. However, just as it is possible to make a misrepresentation by words, it is possible to make a misrepresentation by conduct. The swimmers have discovered that they can intentionally conduct themselves in a way that misrepresents the severity of their disability. By doing this, they are able to scam the classifiers and compete in the wrong disability class.
Since there are many types of disabilities and multiple degrees of impairment severity, the Paralympic classification system is the only thing that ensures athletes with disabilities compete against other athletes with similar physical limitations. Competitors are divided into different classes based on their level of impairment. This provides every athlete with a level playing field and guarantees fairness.
This is very similar to how age classifications are applied in little league sports where the 13-14 year olds do not compete with the 15-16 year olds. In many sports, like boxing or wrestling, there are weight classifications to ensure that heavyweights do not compete against bantamweights. In Paralympic swimming, there are ten disability classifications. The range is from S1, the most severely disabled, to S10, for the least impactful disability.
So let’s suppose that an athlete has a disability that would place them in the S9 classification, but was able to game the system and be classed down to the S8 classification. That would give them a huge advantage because they would then be able to swim against athletes with a more severe disability than their own. This advantage would be equivalent to an eighteen year old playing on a baseball team for fifteen year olds or a black belt martial artist going up against a brown belt. Well, this is exactly what is happening in the sport of Paralympic swimming.
Swimmers with disabilities must go through a classification process that determines the degree to which they are limited in their ability to perform each of the strokes. This is a fairly straight forward process when it comes to physical disabilities that are clearly evident, such as amputations. It is a bit more challenging when dealing with orthopedic or neurological impairments such as Muscular Dystrophy or Cerebral Palsy. That is because these disabilities can affect athletes to varying degrees that can change over time. Athletes that are intent on cheating can take advantage of this process… and they do. There are swimmers that exaggerate their disabilities in the hope of being classed down to a class where they can dominate.
I am most aware of this happening in the S8 classification because that is the class that my daughter, Jessica Long, competes in. And as any father would do, I pay close attention to her competition. The S8 class is extremely competitive and Jessica has won and lost to other S8 swimmers. That’s the way it works. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. However, when a true S9 swimmer ends up winning in the S8 class it is disheartening.
Here’s how it’s done. Australia’s Maddison Elliott, perhaps the most egregious example of this manipulation, arrived at the 2015 World Championships in Glasgow classified as a swimmer in the S9 class. In her observation race (for the purpose of classification), she swam the 100 backstroke in 1:25.42. As a result of her limited ability to kick her legs, she was moved to the S8 class. Later at the same meet, she again swam the 100 backstroke (with a much stronger kick) in the significantly faster time of 1:17.93 and won the S8 gold medal. Even the most casual observer could tell that classing her down was wrong.
According to the rules, it is possible to file a protest when something like this occurs, but the National Governing Body (of a country participating in the meet) has to file it and not one country protested Elliott’s swim. Evidently, this is a very political ordeal and it is very frustrating for the swimmers and coaches because they have no recourse on their own. The closest we got to a protest was when U.S. Paralympic coach, Brian Loeffler, accused Elliott of IM via his Twitter account. Loeffler, the 2014 Paralympic National Coach of the Year, was quickly reprimanded and removed from his position on the coaching staff.
Elliott’s swim was in July of last year. On August 3rd, International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Chief Executive Xavier Gonzalez sent an email to the National Paralympic Committee and the National Federation Presidents stating that IM poses a threat to Para-swimming. He wrote, “During the course of this season, we believe we have witnessed, and have heard of, a number of cases of alleged intentional misrepresentation during the classification evaluation process of athletes.” Gonzalez instructed IPC Swimming to examine all results from its recognized competitions in 2015 for evidence of IM. He also requested that IPC Swimming classifiers and other personnel, including the IPC medical and scientific director and members of the IPC Classification Committee, inform him immediately if they suspect any Para-athlete and/or his or her support personnel has engaged in IM. Then he asked the IPC Legal and Ethics Committee to consider the extent to which conduct breaching the IM rules might also breach the IPC Code of Ethics, and whether ethics proceedings can be brought in cases of IM.
At the 17th IPC General Assembly on November 15, IPC President, Sir Philip Craven confirmed that they had witnessed a number of cases of IM during the classification evaluation process of athletes. He emphasized the seriousness of the offence by stating that IM carries the penalty of a two-year suspension. Several days later, on November 19th during a debate in the House of Lords, Baroness Grey-Thompson, a multiple Paralympic medalist, said that doping is not much of an issue in Paralympic sport, but that “the issue in Paralympic sport is around cheating classification.” She proceeded to complain that “there is no penalty. If an athlete gets moved, nothing happens to the country or to the athlete.”
The World Championships were a year ago and even with the Chief Executive and the President of the IPC knowing about the IM infractions, there has been nothing done to resolve the situation.
Recently, British swimmer, Stephanie Millward seems to have adopted the attitude of, “if you can’t beat them, join them.” At the European Championships, Millward walked onto the pool deck for her event with no wheelchair in sight. A month later at a meet in Germany, she was using a wheelchair and needed assistance to get on the blocks. She then swam six seconds slower in the 100 freestyle. The ruse worked. Millward was reclassed from S9 to S8. Based on her best times this year, she now ranks first in the S8 class 100 freestyle and 100 backstroke. In the 100 backstroke, she leads her closest rival by seven seconds and will have the S8 world record by almost two seconds.
The IPC has recently updated its classification rules and regulations, but that was in the works since 2013 and does nothing to reverse the current IM situation. IPC Swimming assembled a team of experts to review the classification system, but this will also do nothing to fix the IM debacle before Rio.
The IPC needs to rectify this situation, and fast. Otherwise, the Paralympic Games in Rio will be a farce. What other sports organization would acknowledge blatant cheating and do nothing? We’ve heard the words, but what about action? We need swift and decisive action from the IPC, or at the very least an investigation before Rio. The athletes should not be rewarded for IM, and a message needs to be sent that cheating will not be tolerated. Let’s hope this will be dealt with before the Paralympic Games.
I feel devastated for the swimmers who have worked extremely hard and will be forced to race athletes of clearly lesser physical impairment. If the IPC doesn’t step in to ensure fair play, the “dopers” of the Paralympics will run away with the records and medals! What message does this send to the public who will now be watching the competition?
The Paralympic Games is finally getting the media coverage it deserves and it will be ruined by the IM scandal. So sad!