The Paralympics, the version of the Olympic Games created for athletes who suffer from disabilities, is plagued by athletes who aren’t as disabled as they let on competing in categories reserved for the more disabled, an investigation by Australian state-funded media has alleged.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation broke the story on April 2, relying on statements from the former International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Chief Executive, Xavier Gonzalez, who left the organization in 2019.
While to many, the Paralympic Games may be a mere sideshow to the Olympic Games, the IOC states on the official Olympics website that in terms of ticket sales, the Paralympics are the third largest event on the planet, behind only the Olympics themselves and the FIFA World Cup.
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ABC states that at the core of the controversy is a “classification system that is meant to level the playing field for athletes with different impairments.”
Gonzalez directly told the outlet, “We had what is called cheating in classification,” adding that, “Trying to do things with classification to win an advantage is not a thing that the Paralympic movement can tolerate.”
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In its investigation, the ABC became privy to internal IPC documentation, which they say directly discussed “intentional misrepresentation” so prevalent that “the system does not work.”
And because there have been “no repercussions for those who cheat,” ABC says that the documents state, “Athletes and coaches are aware of this and are using it to their advantage.”
The ABC briefly explains the classification system in the following way: “During classification, Paralympians are assessed and divided into classes based on how their impairment affects their performance.
While no two disabilities are the same, there’s a clear advantage for those who end up competing against athletes with more significant impairments than their own.
This is the big taboo of Paralympic sport: A system that creates an incentive to underperform — or even exaggerate — a disability.”
Although the severity of the exploitation of the system is not as great as the examples of biological males competing in biological female events, the resulting domination can be similar.
One case the ABC documented was that of Australian cyclist Stuart Jones who represented the country in the Tokyo 2021 Paralympics.
The ABC is careful to point out that it isn’t that Jones is not disabled, but merely that in 2014 he suffered an “incomplete spinal cord injury,” was diagnosed as unlikely to ever walk again, but made a full recovery.
Despite the man’s recovery being so comprehensive that he “was eventually back on a two-wheeled bike, racing competitively with local cycling clubs,” the injury gave Jones the wherewithal to compete in the three-wheeled tricycle division, which ABC says is supposed to be strictly reserved for paralympic competitors who can’t ride a normal bicycle because of “a lack of balance and/or severe restrictions in pedalling.”
The outlet alleges that between 2015 and 2017, Jones was both competing and winning races in the two and three-wheel categories in both his cycling club and national-level competitions.
AusCycling, the national sports cycling body, denied being aware that Stuart was capable of racing on a two-wheeler.
One woman the ABC interviewed, who was said to be a former partner who had an “acrimonious” split with Stuart, stated that the man would employ a fake limp when walking at three-wheeled events in order to blend in.
Despite Stuart’s allegedly healthy conditioning, he was unable to medal in the Tokyo Paralympics, the ABC noted, adding that he declined to comment for the article and that his lawyer noted there are already defamation cases in the courts resulting from the topic.
Jane Buckley, Medical Director for Australia’s Paralympic Team, also told the ABC that, “The level of misrepresentation that started to take place after 2009 was quite mind-blowing in some sports,” of which she specifically named swimming.
Buckley told reporters that the trend had become so severe it was “almost like an inside joke,” and that “I was told to turn a blind eye, to let it go,” especially with contenders who had high prospects of winning a medal in their sport.
Paralympics Australia was paraphrased as issuing a statement in response to a request for comment stating “that it never condoned cheating and had no knowledge of misconduct related to classification.”
ABC alleged further that “if an athlete appears more impaired when they are being classified, they will compete against athletes with more significant impairments.”
To back the claim, they cited four-time Paralympic gold medalist in swimming Maddison Elliott, who said that for unconscientious participants, “it is very easy to exaggerate in a classification.”
“There are people who are just doing it because they’re not winning in their classification, they want to compete in a classification that they can win in,” Elliot told ABC.
Elliot is a freestyle swimmer who was born with cerebral palsy affecting the right side of her body, according to the Paralympics Australia website.
Amanda Fraser, another Australian Paralympian with cerebral palsy, echoed Elliot’s statements about issues with the classification rubric: when appearing for classification tests, “You are taught to exert yourself and be fatigued and, I guess, be the worst version of yourself at the time,” she told ABC.
“Everybody does that. I think it’s kind of just accepted, I guess. I think that, with cerebral palsy, it’s very easy to do,” Fraser added.
Reclassifications sometimes appear arbitrary and can have a significant impact on Paralympic athletes.
According to a March 2019 article by News.com.au, Elliot was subject to a sudden “classification review” while competing in 2015 in Glasgow at the IPC World Championships, which shuffled her between brackets for swimmers with more and less severe mobility impairments. She was reclassified twice during the same meet.
The article also states that in 2017, after Elliot was again reclassified into the bracket for disabled competitors with “less mobility impairment,” she did not qualify for the Australian team competing at the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast.
In an especially egregious case of classification controversy, ABC stated that a girl named Rebecca Chin who competed in Beijing 2008 for Great Britain was classified as suffering from cerebral palsy but whose difficulty was allegedly limited to “relatively minor impairment of hyper flexible ankles.”
The article states that Chin won the silver medal in the discus at the games, but was abruptly stripped of her medal for being wrongly classified.
A 2017 article by The Telegraph on Chin’s story explained further, “Twenty minutes after winning a Paralympic discus silver medal and moments after a heady BBC interview with Steve Cram, the 16-year-old Chin was ushered into a small room below the Beijing Paralympic stadium and told that she had been stripped of her medal, due to an on-the-spot reclassification.”
The Telegraph explained that although she had originally qualified for the F44 category in the Paralympics, when she arrived in Beijing she was placed instead in the F38 category for more disabled competitors.
Chin told The Telegraph that during her six discus throws in the event, she broke the world record “two or three” times and was still defeated for first place by a competitor for host country China.
The official results for the F38 Discus category of the 2008 Beijing Paralympics shows that Li Chunhua, an athlete competing for Beijing, won the bronze medal as a result of Chin’s disqualification.
An earlier version of this report contained inaccuracies regarding Paralympian Maddison Elliot. Vision Times regrets and apologizes for the errors.