Baroness Grey-Thompson says Para-athletes told not to speak out about classification

Victoria Cilliers
The Para-athletics classification system is to be revised

British athletes were threatened with not being selected if they spoke out about classification concerns in Paralympic sports, MPs have been told.

“It’s somewhere between bullying and control,” said 11-time Paralympic champion Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson.

She was speaking at a Parliamentary committee hearing into claims athletes were cheating the system.

It was announced last week that classification rules would be revised, with effect from 1 January.

A BBC investigation found tactics such as taping up of arms, taking cold showers in trunks and even surgery to shorten limbs had been used by athletes to get into a more favourable class.

Former wheelchair racer Grey-Thompson was a witness at a Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee and was questioned about evidence she gathered for her duty of care in sport review last year.

Asked whether athletes faced consequences for speaking out, she said: “The repercussions that were reported to me were things like deselection from the squad or the team, lack of access to funding, media coverage.

“This was across a whole range of issues, but this also came up that in some cases people were told not to report classification.

“It could be a range of coaches, other team members, medics – it could be a whole range of people who would just say: ‘Don’t speak out about it.'”

Grey-Thompson gave evidence to the select committee on Tuesday

Key points from the hearing

  • Grey-Thompson said she had heard from athletes and their parents who believed the classification system was open to abuse and had been abused by athletes.
  • Michael Breen, father of T38 long jump world champion Olivia, said athletes did not speak out because they had been “intimidated and bullied”.
  • Breen recounted a conversation with British Para-athletics head coach Paula Dunn in which he says she suggested Paralympic sprint champion Sophie Hahn was competing in the wrong category.
  • He had promised to give “explosive” evidence but committee chairman Damian Collins warned him against naming individual athletes.
  • Breen said he met the International Paralympic Committee’s (IPC) head lawyer Mike Townley, who shared documentation with him about an incorrect classification – an athlete with “remitting and relapsing” multiple sclerosis in the T38 class, which includes those with cerebral palsy.
  • Breen claimed IPC summer sports boss Ryan Montgomery told him British athletes had been manipulating the system since the arrival of Dunn’s predecessor as Para-athletics head coach, Peter Eriksson, and suggested a “very successful” T34 athlete had been improperly moved from a more competitive class.
  • Eriksson was prevented from giving evidence via video link from Canada because of technical issues but tweeted that he was watching online and found it “shocking to hear Mr Breen bluntly lying”.
  • Breen accused ex-UK Athletics chief and World Para-athletics technical boss Ed Warner of telling Townley “to drop” a classification inquiry. The IPC says it is looking into Breen’s evidence of a meeting with Townley.
  • In written evidence, the IPC says it reviewed complaints from Breen last year and ruled athletes were in the correct class.
  • Before the Rio 2016 Paralympics, the IPC reviewed the individual files of more than 80 athletes from 24 countries across six sports.

When asked by Giles Watling MP if the system is fit for purpose, Grey-Thompson said: “We need to ask the question whether classification is fair and transparent and whether athletes can make an appeal or complaint in an open and fair process.

“Judged on what I have been told, I don’t believe we can confidently answer that question right now.”

But British Paralympic Association chief executive Tim Hollingsworth said: “Fundamentally I don’t believe we’re looking at something that can be considered not fit for purpose.”

He offered a very qualified apology to any athlete or parent who felt aggrieved by the process.

Is Paralympic sport classification fit for purpose?

What are the cheating claims?

A Radio 4 File on 4 special revealed lawyers for the IPC are investigating whether several athletes and coaches have deliberately exaggerated disability to boost their chance of winning.

British T37 200m sprinter Bethany Woodward handed back a relay medal she won from an event in the past four years, telling the programme the inclusion of one of her team-mates was “giving us an unfair advantage”.

As there is no suggestion the athlete has done anything wrong, the BBC has chosen not to name them.

Woodward, who won an individual silver medal at London 2012, gave up her funding and walked away from the sport, claiming she had lost faith in the way the team was selected.

The IPC says improved performances were due to athletes benefitting from better training regimes, rather than improper classification.

Chelsey Gotell, the IPC Athletes’ Council chair added: “While we appreciate that athletes may have concerns regarding classification – and we are working hard with the IPC to make the system more robust – it is important that athlete concerns are substantiated by factual evidence rather than hear-say, rumour or suspicion.”

Rio Paralympics 2016: Categories of impairment explained

How does the classification process work?

The World Para-athletics classification system is aimed at determining eligibility and dividing competitors into appropriate categories.

  • Allocation – The IPC says the aim is that each group consists of athletes who have impairments that cause roughly the same amount of activity limitation.
  • Category – A classification panel allocates each athlete with a sport class, although some may be classified a number of times during their career.
  • Numbers – Classes are given a number, and each is prefixed with either a ‘T’, which stands for ‘track’, or an ‘F’ for ‘field’.
  • Groups: Impairments are split into groups – for example, visually impaired athletes are in the tens (T11, T12 and T13); athletes with co-ordination impairments are in the 30s (T31-38), and T42-47 covers those with limb deficiencies. The lower the number, the more severe the impairment.

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