Now a 10-time Paralympic medalist, Roy Perkins has always considered himself an “ambassador for the sport.” But he can no longer, in good conscience, advise young disabled people to go into swimming.
At least, not ones who aspire to go as far in the sport internationally as he did, or whose personal feelings of competitive fulfillment stem from participation in fair sport.
“I’ve always wanted to encourage people to get involved, but it’s gotten to a point now where if I meet a young athlete or their parents who were thinking about getting involved, I’ve got to be blunt and say, ‘I would stay away from para swimming, unless you’re really, really passionate about swimming for the sake of swimming, swimming locally,'” Perkins told SwimSwam. “If your participation and your enjoyment of the sport hinges on the fairness at the international level, it’s not there.”
And why is that?
Because the focus of the sport has shifted from training and competition to playing the classification system, according to Perkins. And he says it’s happening in “pretty much” every class, and that this shift began around 2012.
Para-swimming has been publicly marked in recent years by cases of intentional misrepresentation (IM), when an athlete intentionally makes their impairment seem more severe in order to be put into the wrong disability class. World Para Swimming implemented a new classification process in 2018 that has only yielded more chaos.
Perkins, an S5, hasn’t himself been tested since his classification in 2004, so he doesn’t know exactly what the process looks like today. But what he has witnessed first-hand is a change in attitude.
“I couldn’t tell you what changed behind the scenes, but I know that the outcome changed drastically to a point now where you finish a big meet like the Rio Games and everybody’s talking about their future, and that conversation revolves around classification – about who’s going to be put in what classification,” he said. “In some cases even, ‘how can I cheat the classification system?’ And people aren’t focusing on their training, or preparation, or their technique. It’s all about classification, and I think that attitude that people have matches the reality.”
“For me to win a gold medal in Rio, it was a great accomplishment, and my own race was fair. But I think it watered down what it meant for me to go up on the podium, and win when I knew that other people in that same position, a lot of them didn’t earn it.”
The situation has gotten so dire that Perkins, 28, is strongly reconsidering his interest in going to Tokyo (for what would be his fourth Paralympic Games) in two years; unfair races are cheapening the value of his own competing in fair races.
“I saw in Rio – my own competitions were fair. I was swimming against guys that I’ve been swimming against for years. Nobody got moved down who I felt like impacted the fairness of my races,” he said. But elsewhere, in other classifications, I felt like there are illegitimate races. I couldn’t tell you the exact percentage, but it’s a good portion of them… For me to win a gold medal in Rio, it was a great accomplishment, and my own race was fair. But I think it watered down what it meant for me to go up on the podium, and win when I knew that other people in that same position, a lot of them didn’t earn it. And just the whole competition had kind of a shadow cast over it.”
And so, the seemingly unsolvable question remains: how do World Para Swimming and the International Paralympic Committee save their sport? No one has a simple answer.
Trischa Zorn, the most decorated Paralympian of all-time, suggested last year that swimmers be classified outright based on impairment, eliminating the subjective nature of classification. But with that solution would inevitably come a slew of other problems.
“I think they just need consistency, and also need to look at the whole thing with common sense,” Perkins said, agreeing that Zorn’s solution is one reasonable possibility. “If you’re bringing a swimmer down a classification and they’re 15 percent faster than everybody else who’s previously been winning medals, there’s a pretty good chance they’re in the wrong class. I think in general it’d be better to err on the side of keeping a really fast swimmer out of the lower classification. Occasionally, maybe it wouldn’t be fair to that swimmer, but the other side of it is if you’re haphazardly bringing people down a class, they’re going to be dominating, and it ruins the whole competition for everybody else.”
Able-bodied athletes face a similar reality when it comes to performance-enhancing drugs, but governing bodies appear, at least publicly, to take those cases more seriously. Perkins wants intentional misrepresentation handled similarly, if not monitored even more intensely: “I think they should approach it with even more gravity than they approach drug testing because it makes an even bigger impact.”
And in general, it’s not just media who are left out of the loop. Athletes, too, want answers.
“So if they can’t get it right, they’ve got to find somebody else who can.”
“They basically say ‘we can’t discuss individual cases,’ which alright, that’s okay, but the results need to be there,” Perkins said. “So really my interest is just for the results can change. They’re pretty secretive about their whole process. So it’s hard to pinpoint what should be changed specifically.”
“But I just know that for them to say ‘it’s a difficult thing to get right’ – it’s a weak excuse. It was a lot better ten years ago. And their entire purpose is to get that right. So if they can’t get it right, they’ve got to find somebody else who can.”
From Perkins’ perspective, the public obsession with classification has also shifted focus away from what para-sport is meant to be about in the first place, and marred the sport of swimming at-large.
“The whole point of it is to get people with a disability involved in elite athletic competition, and for that purpose itself to be perverted – the actual disability aspect of the Paralympics – to become perverted to this level, I think it’s a huge insult to athletes, it’s an insult to the sport of swimming,” he said.
“Kind of the impression I feel like people get, and no offense to SwimSwam, the stuff coming out – it’s from parents who are upset about their own swimmers, or competitors who have a grudge. There was a lot of individual people calling each other out, and even if they have a valid point, I think it just detracts from the real issues.”
While we wait for the powers that be to figure out a classification process that works, Perkins urges his peers, and media, to remember the sport as it was before it became built around deceit.
“It’s really disappointing that it’s reached that point. So I just I think from the media perspective and from the perspective of athletes who maybe have the ear of people in USA Swimming or just the swimming community in general, I think the point that needs to get across more is just that this is hurting athletes, it’s not just about personal grudges and swimmers thinking they’re entitled to whatever position on the podium,” he said. “It’s really a much more basic level than that.”