The Classification Debacle...
For those of you new to the blog, I'm Ryan. I'm an Ex-GB International para-athlete with Cerebral Palsy, I only discovered Paralympic sport aged 18 and it changed my life, allowed me to travel the world, represent my country and win medals. It also opened my eyes up to Classification and the various challenges within para sport, throughout my career I struggled with the system and found several flaws in it. This piece however isn't about me, its about the other person in the picture; Bethany, or as I call her Beth
Beth & I fooling around
Beth is my partner and up until recently she was also a GB international para-athlete (and if you ask me one of the most promising wheelchair basketball athletes in the country). Beth represented GB at the World Juniors in 2019 winning a bronze medal and has been part of the training squad for Tokyo, training full-time in Sheffield since the new year in the build up to the Games. This was an exciting year for both of us, we'd relocated up north from Essex so she could be closer to training, in the middle of a pandemic. *Fingers crossed later on in the year she would be getting on the plane to Tokyo and I'd be screaming/crying at the tele with pride come the Paralympics.
Since then our lives have been turned upside down...
The International Paralympic Committee have deemed that Beth is not eligible to compete at the Paralympics, I know right, CRAZY! (this has affected other athletes, with George Bates being the most high profile case). She's a full-time wheelchair user, blue-badge holder, in receipt of mobility and as such has a car provided through Motability. In every sense of the word she is disabled. So how is a disabled person, a wheelchair user not allowed to compete at the Paralympics ? supposedly the worlds most inclusive event for people with disabilities.
Watching on as a loved one, I've been powerless, I can't even imagine what the last few months have been like for her, or what the next few months will be like. I won't speak for Beth, in time I hope she will share her story in her own words and in the meantime I can only try and support her.
Personally I've been consumed with rage, frustration and an overwhelming sense of injustice. There have been tears, rows and long bouts of silence, to say it hasn't affected our relationship would be a lie. As someone who has competed in Paralympic sport I have struggled to understand how someone like myself is allowed to compete but someone like Beth isn't. At times I've been struck with an extreme sense of guilt, that I'm eligible and she's not.
For those unaware in Paralympic sport there are a 10 boxes, these boxes describe eligible impairments, and your disability/impairment needs to fit into one or more of the boxes. There are then a list of conditions/disabilities that cause these impairments, with some conditions labelled as "Not Eligible" meaning regardless of the level of disability you cannot compete at the Paralympics because your condition isn't recognised.
Currently Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS), Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS), myofacial pain-dysfunction syndrome, and fibromyalgia are on a list of conditions not accepted. Any athlete with one of these conditions, irrespective of how disabled they may be cannot compete in the Paralympics. Beth has EDS and George has CRPS, they both fit into one or more of the 10 boxes, however their conditions are not recognised by the IPC so they cannot compete.
15,000 word research paper on Classification
What is most disturbing about this decision is the lack of scientific and medical evidence to support their decision. Having read through just about everything I can find by the IPC on classification (*I've spent the last 6 months researching classification as part of my degree) there has been ZERO research into the conditions they have deemed "Not Eligible". With no evidence base to support the exclusion of certain conditions and inclusion of others, it begs the question; how was this decision made?
To this date, I've been unable to find anything on the decision making process or the rationale to include some but exclude others. The Paralympics is steeped in history, as is the classification system, I won't bore you with the details but it seems a blanket decision was made about some conditions.
My opinion is not everyone with EDS or CRPS should necessarily compete in Paralympic sport, although I appreciate I am not in a position to say how an individual is affected or if they should be allowed to compete. I know people with both conditions who are very able in life with the condition impacting them minimally. On the flip-side I know many people with these conditions who are severely disabled, and when I compare these people to other disabilities that are allowed to compete, there is absolutely no doubt the wrong decision has been made. We need to be careful of how we describe disability and what we base this understanding on, you don't need to be a wheelchair user or an amputee to be disabled (even if this is the only media representation of disability). We need to shift away from the visibility of disability, it may be time for a broader definition of disability to be taken into account for in the Paralympics classification system.
The Paralympics isn't only for people with the most severe disabilities, unfortunately the recent BBC Panorama show whilst raising awareness of some of the issues was also extremely damaging, and did not paint the full picture. I do not share the views of Liz McTernan, one of the athletes interviewed and do not wish to echo her sentiments about people being "barley disabled". If there's one thing living with a disability has taught me, no one really knows what your going through. I fall into the category of athletes Liz describes, and to many I look "barely disabled", I've had comments from fellow athletes, criticism from members of the public when parking in disabled bays. Disability doesn't fit into one box, or even 10, every disability is different and no two people are the same even if they have the same condition. If you didn't watch it, BBC - The Unfair Games its worth a watch. To me Liz comments about competing against people who were "barely disabled" showed a failure of the classification in her sport. With Triathlon being a relatively new sport there probably needs to be more categories so people with different disabilities compete against those with similar impairments. Unfortunately the nature of sport means the better athlete will always succeed and in Paralympic sport the more 'able' athlete will perform better than the more 'disabled' athlete. Again I don't think this is a question over individuals disabilities, but a lack of categories to make competing fairer. In my own sport of athletics I had to compete against athletes with acquired CP and Multiple Sclerosis (MS), these athletes are very clearly disabled, yet they have a massive advantage over me as someone born with my disability. Was this unfair? Probably, no amount of training could teach me something I'm unable to learn - e.g. complex movement patterns required for running and jumping. (I was a good jumper but could never put the different elements of a long-jump together, my brain separates my legs and arms, left and right side of the body, my brain damage means I can only focus on one limb, complex movement like running/jumping are extremely difficult as a result). Acquiring a brain injury or MS later in life means you have access to neural pathways created prior to the injury or onset of condition, that someone born with their condition will never have.
What I'm trying to show is the classification system is flawed.
I'm not critiquing individuals or questioning people's disabilities.
One of the symptoms EDS is of hypertonia (1 of the 10 boxes), a common symptom in athletes with Cerebral Palsy - one that I myself have. If an EDS athlete presented with exactly the same symptoms but had a diagnosis of Cerebral Palsy instead, they would be allowed to compete. I don't know George personally, but like many I know his story. He has impaired muscle power and impaired passive range of motion caused by the CRPS - he fits into 2 boxes. Comparing George to a lower limb ankle amputee he is no more able than them, if anything you could argue he's disadvantaged as an amputee could push through a prosthetic whereas he can't push through the impaired leg.
Lost in semantics?
That's a huge part of the problem; no one quite understands it, classification that is.
The more you read the more confused and frustrated you get, it simply doesn't make sense!
How can some conditions be accepted and others not?
Let me be clear I'm not advocating that everybody with every impairment should be allowed to compete at the Paralympics, however I do think the Paralympics as a movement needs to evaluate how it classes athletes and determines eligibility.
Here's why, in simple terms.
Beth CANT run.
Beth CANT jump.
Beth can BARELY walk.
Beth uses a WHEELCHAIR in her daily life.
However, despite this she is not allowed to compete because her condition isn't recognized by the IPC. Comparing Beth to myself, I am far more able than her in life, I can run, jump and for the most part play most sports with little to no adaptation, I don't need a wheelchair in my daily life. Yes I am disabled, I struggle with various things, I'm not trying to downplay my disability. What I'm trying to show is the injustice and clear lack of common sense. As a Cerebral Palsy athlete I am far more able in life and in sport than Beth ever will be, but because she
has the wrong condition she cant compete.
How is this fair?
It isn't, and no one from the IPC will be able to convince me otherwise, because when you look at the facts something has gone wrong. The Paralympics is an elite sporting competition for people with disabilities, and Beth is DISABLED!
The last time the IPC Classification Code was reviewed was 2015, its currently being reviewed, but this is a 4-year process. Any potential changes wont come into play until 2025.