POSTED: November 2nd 2017

JOHN GOODBODY: Inquiry needed on disabled sport - the IPC must act

THE JOHN GOODBODY COLUMN / An authoritative and exclusive series from Sports Features Communications

(SFC) The Paralympic Games and all international sport for the disabled have come a long way since Dr Ludwig Guttmann staged the first event in 1948, to coincide with the opening of the Summer Olympics in London.

Dr Guttmann held the competition in Stoke Mandeville in Britain, where there is a hospital and clinic catering for people who have become disabled. He would have been so proud, and deservedly so, when the Paralympics were staged after the 2012 Olympics to packed crowds and intense interest.

Britain certainly seems to be the home of disabled sport as was shown by the success of the recent disabled world athletics championships, when more spectators attended the competitions than all the previous championships added together. The athletes themselves were so receptive to the experience that there were suggestions that London should become the permanent home to this event.

Britain has been supporting leading disabled competitors with substantial funding and they have responded by reaching second place in the medal table at the 2016 Paralympic Games, while many of the leading competitors have become national celebrities.

However, beneath this euphoria, there is a controversy that this week threatened the basis of disabled sport. Athletes are classified according to their disability to allow individuals and teams to compete fairly against each other. In some events and sports, this is relatively easy but in others, it is much more difficult.

And the competition in disabled sport has become increasingly intense with a BBC investigation finding that strategies such as taping up of arms and even surgery to shorten limbs so that competitors could be eligible for a more favourable category.

Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, who won 11 Paralympic gold medals and is a well-known figure in British sport, told a committee meeting of the British Parliament that athletes would be dropped from teams and their funding stopped, if they complained about any doubtful classifications.

Michael Breen, the father of T38 world long jump champion Olivia, claimed to the committee that athletes did not speak out because they had been "intimidated and bullied." My colleague on the Sunday Times, David Walsh, rightly celebrated for his investigation into the cheating by Lance Armstrong, has interviewed Bethany Woodward, whom he describe as "the most admirable athlete I've encountered in 40 years of covering sport." She suffers from cerebral palsy.

She retired from athletics, despite being only 23 and a relay silver medallist in the European Championships, because she did not want to continue in a sport that she felt degraded disabled athletes. She felt one of her own relay colleagues was ineligible.

The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) says that before Rio, it investigated 80 allegations of mis-classification from 24 countries. Some of the methods used for classifying athletes can be acutely distressing. Hannah Cockcroft, who has won five Paralympic gold medals in wheelchair racing, has spoken of electrodes being attached to her spine and then electric shocks sent up and down her legs to see which nerves worked, a practice that she described as "sickening". However, it may be that such methods are necessary to verify classification.

The IPC has just announced a complete review of the cerebral palsy classifications. But, certainly as far as Britain is concerned, this should go further. Baroness Grey-Thompson wants an independent review because the culture of the sport was "somewhere between control and bullying."

She is right in her demands. Britain may have been the pioneers in disabled sport and may remain a leading nation in competitions but it is vital for the veracity of the Paralympics that proper classifications are established. The IPC should ensure this is done. It owes it to both the spectators and, more important, the athletes themselves.

** JOHN GOODBODY covered the 2016 Olympics for The Sunday Times, his 13th successive Summer Games and is the author of the audio book A History of the Olympics, read by Barry Davies, the BBC commentator. He was Sports News Correspondent of The Times 1986-2007, for whom he received journalistic awards in all three decades on the paper, including Sports Reporter of The Year in 2001.  

****The views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sports Features Communications.

Keywords · John Goodbody · Olympics

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