Layne Bro is not much of an athlete himself, but dad to 3 very active and athletic kids including 1 para athlete. Layne is an Information Security Leader for a California based company and has spent a normal ‘parent of a swimmer’ amount of time driving to and from pools and sleeping in the parking lot.
I am a fan of the Paralympics and also the father of a para-athlete. I watched the recent concerns expressed by Steve Long and Ian Silverman with interest. I agreed with some of their points, yet waited until the games to make my own decisions. Below is an open letter to Sir Craven asking for his help in fixing the classification problems. Without his help, no progress will be made.
******** Open Letter Below**********
Sir Philip Craven –
Congratulations on your amazing achievements with the Paralympic Games. You have led the IPC well and built one of the greatest sporting spectacles in the world. I am both a Paralympics fan and a father of a Paralympic Athlete. I was a fan before I knew that my daughter would qualify to compete as an athlete. In fact, my daughter is a Paralympic Athlete primarily because of her exposures to the Paralympic Games and para-athletes when she was young.
You have won the battle but are most certainly losing the war. You have succeeded in creating a world wide brand and gaining more spectators and more sponsors and more athletes globally.
Yet, as I sit in the Aquatic Center in Rio de Janeiro Brazil watching the games, I find that I cannot continue to watch. Your classification system is broken. And this problem will cause you to fail in the bigger picture. The classification systems used historically and for these games, have so many glaring errors and problems, that I find the competition pointless.
During the S8 Women’s 400 Free finals in swimming, the complete failure of your classification system was visually on display. The winner of the event climbed out of the pool and literally ran across the side of the pool in complete excitement. Yet, another athlete was being lifted out of the pool into her wheelchair unable to extract herself from the pool without assistance. The winner, with 2 full legs and 2 full arms barely kicked during the prelims that morning. Yet during the all important finals, she kicked consistently and strongly. How could this be from adrenaline or excitement? For the young woman in the wheelchair – how can she have a desire to continue to compete? How does anyone convince her she can ever beat a seemingly near able bodied swimmer? The winner jumping out and running off in excitement, while at the same time, one of her competitors was being lifted out of the water into her wheelchair, could not have been a more visually jarring scene even if Hollywood had put it into a movie.
The Paralympic classification system is meant to ‘create a level playing field’ across different types of disabilities. How is a swimmer with observably nearly fully functioning limbs the same classification as a swimmer missing both legs or paralyzed and unable to use either leg?
This type of complete inconsistency was repeated time after time at these games in Rio. Both Mens and Womens events. Swimmers from every country are obviously not classified appropriately. I do not blame the countries – they are all trying to play by the rules, but the rules are so useless that the countries are left to find ways to win by using the flaws in the rules to their advantage.
The point of competition is to celebrate hard work and accomplishment. The point of being an elite athlete is to work hard, perform to the best of your abilities, and show good sportsmanship. The stated purpose of the Paralympics is ‘To enable para-athletes to achieve sporting excellence and inspire and excite the world.’ The Paralympics are not able to deliver their purpose when they cannot deliver consistent classifications.
Without a reasonable, reliable, and consistently applied classification system, there is no value in the Paralympic competitions. Rules are what decides the fair competition. The primary rules in Para Sports are the classification system. And the classification system does not currently work. Without these rules in place, the competition is unfair. Do the Olympics force women to compete against men? That is their form of a classification system and it is consistently implemented.
Sir Craven, we have a problem that will ruin the Paralympics if it is not addressed immediately. You, as the President, have ownership of this problem and the position and authority to effect a change. Yet, the problem gets worse and worse with time.
There have been calls for improvements across multiple para sports for years now. Yet, the IPC sports bodies are not doing anything in response. Since the individual sports will not act, you, as president, must act and set the mandate. If not, your amazing work will be wasted and you will be known not for your fantastic achievements, but for the disaster of the classification system.
I am not a doctor, nor do I know the medical histories of the different swimmers, but at some point, even the layman on the street can look at 2 competitors and realize they are not equal in their physical capabilities.
This is your biggest challenge and the one that I believe will define your tenure as President of the IPC. I for one wish you well and hope that you find a way to fix this mess. I hope to attend the 2020 games in Tokyo. As a fan or, as a father of an athlete, or both. But, if the classification system is not fixed, I will no longer be a fan of the games. But, I will always be a fan of the athletes.
In the end, it is the athletes themselves who lose. Those athletes who work hard every day to train and prepare for a fair competition to see how they stack up against the best in the world. When they arrive at these games and see how unfair the classifications are – what interest do they have in trying again next year? You may soon find yourself with a declining number of athletes. And if the athletes lose faith in the games, the fans will be right behind them and will stop attending your events. And without attendance, the sponsors will turn their backs too. There are already alternatives to the Paralympic Games that are more ‘fair’, such as the World Dwarf Games and the World Deaf games. Maybe an enterprising young Stanford or Oxford graduate will start the World Amputee games and the World Cerebral Palsy games. Then what will be the value of the Paralympics with its failed classification system?
It saddens me to think of the hard work that is wasted by all of the athletes who don’t have a ‘way around the rules.’ And I believe they would be better off working on something else where the playing field is at least a little more even – like a career, even in a prejudiced society. At least there, the discrimination and inconsistency are acknowledged.
This is written by Layne Bro.