The classification system for Paralympic track and field athletes is flawed and open to abuse by the unscrupulous, according to a report into the subject by the sport’s own governing body.
UK Athletics’ review found a variety of ways in which the existing classification rules could be undermined, and uncovered a widespread belief inside Paralympic sport that a system designed to ensure fairness can be exploited.
A copy of the report has been shown to the Guardian ahead of its publication. Produced by a panel of four experts, and chaired by Anne Wafula Strike, it concluded: “There was wide consensus that the current UKA national classification system could be abused, should an athlete or support personnel be sufficiently motivated, have an understanding of the classification process and have an impairment that lends itself to exaggeration.
“This issue is not exclusive to athletics but reflected across Paralympic sport.”
The report identifies several ways in which athletes could cheat the system by making themselves appear more disabled during classification. These include:
Athletes in classes for those with neurological conditions, such as cerebral palsy, tiring themselves out ahead of classification in order to perform poorly in tests.
Athletes altering medical forms and evidence prior to submitting them in support of their classification.
Athletes presenting medical reports from doctors who are sympathetic to the athlete.
The report’s findings suggest that UK Athletics, which has been criticised over classification, is keen to introduce reforms ahead of the World Para Athletics Championships in London this summer. It is also understood that could lead to some UK Paralympic athletes’ medical records being looked at again as a result.
Classification is at the heart of Paralympic competition, with the aim being to put competitors of similar disability up against each other. However, the classification of disabled athletes has become increasingly contentious with claims that some have gained an unfair advantage – potentially helping them win races and medals – as a result of being classified as more disabled than they actually are.
For track and field atheletes in the UK, classification is handled by UK Athletics; for international competitions classification is controlled by World Para Athletics. Other sports handle their own classification.
The UKA review interviewed a number of people with experience of the classification process. The review found that although the national classification system could be exploited “there was no substantive evidence to suggest that this is the case”.
Professor John Brewer of St Mary’s University, one of the authors of the review, said: “There is clearly the opportunity that if someone decides to be unscrupulous and cheat the system the opportunity is there to cheat. The opportunity is there in all sports in some way or another.
“We did hear some anecdotal evidence of athletes who had perhaps tried to pre-fatigue prior to classification and then obviously that then impacts on coordination.”
The review makes a list of wide-ranging recommendations which UKA has agreed to implement in full. The team behind the review said they hoped that their report would prompt other Paralympic governing bodies around the world to follow suit.
The list includes improving the quality of medical documentation relating to competitors’ disabilities which are presented to classifiers.
“We felt there was a lack of consistency in the way some of the records had been collected,” said Brewer.
The report also calls for a new review into medical processes to “reduce the opportunity of information being manipulated”, and recommends the establishment of a panel of independent clinicians to review medical data.
Athletes with fluctuating conditions, meaning that the level of their disability varies over time, should be given particular scrutiny, the report says.
Brewer said: “We were very aware that someone can have a condition which is fluctuating, it’s progressing, whatever it might be. But it’s a changing condition, as opposed to some athletes who have a condition that is fairly stable. That’s why we want these recommendations, the process to be swifter, more responsive, perhaps a bit more flexible so if athletes are changing we can look at that and if there was a need for them to be reviewed and go into another category then that will happen.”
Despite identifying a number of areas requiring improvement the report concludes that the UK classification system is “robust” and “recognised as one that is world-leading with a strong ethical culture and an exemplar of best practice in many areas”.
It adds that the areas of improvement had been highlighted in order to “ensure the system’s ongoing integrity and improve understanding of classification”.
Ed Warner, chair of UKA, welcomed the report and confirmed that the recommendations would be implemented in full. But he said that money was tight and called on funding bodies to improve the money available for Paralympic sport.
The report comes on the back of concerns expressed by Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson, one of Britain’s most decorated and best-known star of the Paralympics,. As first reported by the Guardian last September, she had contacted various figures within Paralympic sport to pass on her suspicions that some athletes had obtained an unfair advantage due to being grouped with competitors more disabled than themselves.
She told the Guardian at the time: “It’s absolutely vital that classification is taken seriously. It goes to the heart of the integrity of the sport. I am concerned about anything that threatens the integrity of our sport.”