Classification Has Probably Cost Me Medals, but I Still Believe In It

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As a 6-time Paralympian and writer, who is a member of the World Para Athletics Athletes Advisory Group and the British Athletics Athletes Commission, I thought I should take some time to pour a few of my thoughts about Paralympic classification onto a readable media platform, in the form of words. At this moment I’m at the start of another training cycle, pushing the barrel down preparing for my 23rd consecutive season as an international athlete, and once again all everyone connected with Paralympic sport is talking about is classification.

Throughout my career I’ve been quite outspoken about various classification issues, but this has always been driven by a desire to see fair competition, and to know as an athlete that I can work my hardest, do my best and preferably get what I deserve at the end, whether that be gold, silver, bronze or whatever.

I’d say classification has probably cost me a few medals in my career so far – Can I prove that? No, I cannot, and it’s frustrating when you feel something might not be fair and can’t do anything about it.

Classification, without it you could argue that Paralympic sport would not exist, but for as long as I have been involved in Paralympic sport (clocking up a few years now), it has been a consistently divisive and controversial subject that gets everyone very angry and threatens to undermine the integrity of the sport.

With characteristics very similar to the anti-doping debate, a problem that has long dogged sport in general, nobody can seem to agree on the best way to classify athletes in a way that results in fair and equal competition. Athletes, coaches, spectators, governing bodies and classifiers all seem to have different opinions.

Recently the classification debate reached new heights as a Parliamentary select committee held a hearing into alleged cheating within the classification process. Claims have been made against specific athletes that have been proven to be unfounded and which are quite frankly unethical to make without any facts or evidence to back them up.

Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson gave evidence that athletes feel they cannot talk about classification for fear of the consequences, I must admit that this can be the case, and is one of the reasons I chose not to contribute to the hearing. We’ve made classification a taboo subject that only gets talked about behind closed doors in private conversations and vicious rumours go around like wild fire – I don’t think this is healthy at all.

Paralympic sport is developing, and classification needs to develop with it, I feel it’s important that classification and its systems and processes are discussed openly and honestly by all involved in a sensible and proactive way. Of course, that doesn’t mean falsely accusing athletes of cheating, but talking about what is fair and admitting when mistakes have been made. Being bitter and angry will not solve any problems, we just end up descending into disability top trump scenarios, which is no good for anyone and classification is much more complex than that.

World Para Athletics announced changes to classification rules recently, this included placing all athletes in the 20 and 30 classes on review and creating new classes for amputee track athletes. I personally welcome the changes and hope they will help make the sport fairer, and the classification system more robust.

The 30 classes certainly could benefit from a bit of a reset as the lines between these classes have become somewhat blurred over the years and traditionally these classes were seen as for athletes with cerebral palsy which is not now the case. The classification process has changed a lot since most athletes were first classified, I myself was classified well over 20 years ago, I wouldn’t mind being reviewed every year. More research is probably needed into the fairness of cerebral palsy athletes competing against athletes with neurological conditions, but as of now it is not up for debate with the current system and without the research.

I know there is concern over creating yet more classes and potentially more events in an already over-crowded Paralympic programme but if it means fairer and more competitive events I think it will be positive. I know there are only so many events you can have at a Paralympics and I know you can’t have a class for every degree of impairment but the more like for like we can get in terms of type of impairment and functional ability the better for me.

Another worry is having even less competitors in events as some are already pretty thin, but I think spectators would rather watch an event where all 5 or 6 in it have a chance of winning than an event with 15 in, where 13 or 14 of the entrants have no chance of winning – I know I would.

There are only so many disabled people in the world and not all of them will want to do sport, and even out of those that do want to do sport only some will want to train to an elite level. So, we’ll never get the numbers in Paralympic sport that we see in able-bodied sport, that’s just nature. What is important though is that there is a fair and robust classification system that enables those disabled athletes that do want to compete at the Paralympics to have a clear route, and for those watching to know without a doubt that Paralympic athletes are succeeding due to maximising their ability and not questioning an athlete’s place in that class.

More people are watching Paralympic sport than ever before, and it’s important that we stop the classification subject becoming such a negative aspect, instead making it into a positive tool that enables disabled athletes to compete fairly and on a level playing field.

To have a system like this will take time and won’t happen overnight. Classifiers, both medical and technical, do an extremely difficult job and are volunteers. They need more support and respect from all involved. It’s also important that the classification system develops to be more objective than subjective, more scientific, and that classifiers have powers to identify and punish anyone who may try to mislead them and attempt to appear to be more impaired than they are.

Like Tanni, I don’t believe cheating in classification is widespread but it’s only natural in an environment where the rewards for success are so high that athletes and the nations they compete for have an instinctive desire to be in a class that they can be the most competitive. This is why the classification process should be as independent as possible, with as little input as possible from governing bodies or anyone who may have a conflict of interest. I can’t say this is currently the case, it needs funding and investment to create an independent body for classification but I think it’s the way to go. I also believe there should be a process to protest, but it has to be more structured and robust than it used to be, where we could see hundreds of protests at every competition.

It could be argued, with all this fuss and confusion, why have so many classifications? The alternative? Events with combined types of disabilities, time and distance banded events. If there were for example only four 100m events for wheelchair, visually impaired, neurologically impaired and amputee athletes, only the least impaired would be competitive, that is not the spirit of Paralympic sport in my eyes. This would exclude a lot of athletes and be confusing for spectators, and I am proud that Para Athletics provides competitive opportunities for such a wide range of disabilities.

I don’t believe classification is broken, flawed, a farce, or any of the other words going around lately, it’s ultimately the glue that holds Paralympic sport together. I hope that by continuing to develop a classification system based on research and science, which becomes independent and objective, where athletes compete fairly against those with the same type of impairment and similar functional ability, we will see future Paralympic Games full of even more competitive and exciting events.

One thought on “Classification Has Probably Cost Me Medals, but I Still Believe In It

  • Very articulate, informed and well structured comments Stephen.
    Great to hear that even though it may have failed you personally at times, you still have faith and trust in the system and want it to have the opportunity to develop in a calm and professional way.

    Overall – an article from a true sportsman! – And Olympian!

    Well said!

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