September 23, 2021
Sports world

At the Paralympic Games, the imbroglio of the classification of athletes: “There will always be injustice”

  • August 24, 2021
  • 9 min read
At the Paralympic Games, the imbroglio of the classification of athletes: “There will always be injustice”

A constantly evolving classification system, different categories of athletes selected according to the disciplines that can change until the last moment, up to 39 categories in athletics… Did you say “gas plant”?

A swimmer who walks to her water line with a limp, two others who arrive in a wheelchair, another one with a small stride, a last one who removes her artificial legs when settling on the starting pad… It is September 8, 2016, in the Olympic pool in Rio, Brazil, for the women’s 400m freestyle final in the S8 category at the Paralympic Games.

“I knew the dice were loaded from the start,” said Danish swimmer Amalie Østergaard, five years later.” There were only three swimmers who could really fight for the podium. They knew that and so did we.” In front of her water line, the American Brickelle Bro also ruminates as she removes her prostheses: “The physical differences were far too glaring.” Australia’s Lakeisha Patterson broke the world record, and only two swimmers finished less than 10 seconds behind. The rest of the competition is lagging behind.

A certain discomfort sets in in the stands when the winner starts a lap of honour by running to celebrate her gold medal, while her runner-up, Jessica Long of the United States, was amputated both legs at birth. Brickelle Bro, finished 7th at 35 seconds: “And I, meanwhile, was struggling to get out of the pool, in a really unsightly way. I was exhausted, my arms couldn’t carry me. I remember waiting for someone to pull me out of the water.

I still see Lakeisha running to the press at that time… the last image of my paralympic career.” His father will crack an open letter to the Chair of the Paralympic Committee. Heartbroken. And far from being the only one. This scene is etched in my memory,” said Amalie Østergaard, who qualified for the Tokyo Paralympic Games, which start on Tuesday, August 24. With no illusions about his chances of winning a medal.” Five years later, I think nothing has changed. The classification system is still unfair. ‘

“There must be people who are better off.”

The classification system is the basis of the Paralympic Games. For swimming, the potential of each athlete is assessed on a scale of 300 points, in ten classes, ranging from S1 (the most severely handicapped athletes, who get only 45 to 60 points out of the 300) to S10 (those who are slightly handicapped, between 264 and 286). Technically, they can find themselves in the same category of athletes with different handicaps, such as Amalie Østergaard, technically closer to an S7 when her rivals in this Olympic final were close to the S9 level. “The panel of all the handicaps that exist cannot be divided into ten categories,” says Jean Minier, head of mission of the tricolour Paralympic delegation. There must be people who are better off than others.”

Not to mention the clever ones who flirt with the yellow line, or even do not hesitate to cheat: “Some nations send tired athletes to evaluations, so that they have a lower score, describes former classifier Jean-Michel Westelynck. The classifiers pay attention to everything, outside the pool, the way to prepare in the locker room, the time to greet… I remember one time, at an appetizer on the sidelines of a competition, an athlete in a wheelchair that I had classified during the day got up from her chair when she wasn’t supposed to be able to do it!”

In track and field, we pushed up to 39 categories, with for example 24 different finals for the 100 metres. For broadcasters, that’s too much. For athletes, not necessarily enough. Forty years ago, the categories were set according to the athletes’ disability, we had 30 or 40 finals per event. And in terms of competitiveness, we had categories where there were not many people. Sometimes, three swimmers were competing for the order of the podium steps”, Jean-Michel Westelynck, who also had the French Paralympic swimming boss’s hat.

“I have no chance of qualifying”

Simply put, some disciplines have been reduced to a single disability. In judo, you have only one category that mixes visionary and blind, describes Jean Minier. So the fight begins when the two fighters grab each other’s kimono, but it’s been a long time since we’ve seen a visually impaired person on a podium.” In wheelchair basketball, George Bates of Great Britain threatened to cut his leg to be admitted to the Games. To no avail – and last I heard, he did not carry out his threat.

You find dozens of athletes who feel they are poorly classified. Not all of them express their bitterness in the same way. Canadian skier Yves Bourque, born without legs, took four years to get his time down from other athletes in his category who could walk. All these years without performance, it cost me a lot of money, in bonuses, in sponsors,” he regrets, before estimating this disbursement at $15,000 a year. Same hiccup in fencing, where the Lebanese Elias Seeman has been doing his weapons for ten years. Tetraplegic, he plays in category C, but only the A and B are on the program in Tokyo. “If I manage to reach the quarter-finals of the C-category tournaments, in B, I barely manage to get out of the hens, he sighs. I didn’t have a chance to qualify, which doesn’t stop me from trying.”

Classifier Orianne Lopez is pleased that, increasingly, her corporation is trying to explain to athletes what their real chances of accessing the Games are at a very young age, to avoid having them sacrifice fifteen years of their lives. Today, we are trying to redirect athletes who want to shine to other disciplines where they have more chances. I wish someone had told me that when I was an athlete. I went to the London Games, I made the final of the 100m of my category, but I had no chance of winning. For some, this is the primary driver of their motivation.’

Not that of Elias Seeman, lucid about his chances of teasing the Olympic rings one day: “In the current state of things, the C category has nothing to do with the Games. There must be a dozen of us on the World Cup and five or six women. It’s not representative, not even necessarily beautiful to see on TV. It’s the Games, it’s not a fair.” A tightly regulated kermesse, the contract between the Paralympic Committee and the IOC calls for 550 events, 4,000 athletes, not one more. Any additional tests would result in the deletion of another…

On the other side of the disability spectrum, athletes with only a slight disability also have to face suspicion. Having become a Paralympic swimming legend, Canadian Benoît Huot experienced it again this summer: “I won the Quebec Sports Personality Award in June, people came to ask me ‘Why are you competing in the Paralympic? ‘” Benoît Huot and his club foot became eligible for Paralympic competitions in the late 1990s. At the time, the other competitors’ appeals poured against its inclusion in the Paralympic programme. “I had to justify myself for more than ten years to make my place. When I was a teenager, it was extremely difficult. I didn’t ask for anything. At the end of your career, you build a shell, you’re more mature, you take things less emotionally.”

A “violent” process

For athletes with a progressive disability, you have to go through a grader on a regular basis. A formality, most of the time. It’s a tragedy sometimes. French swimmer Claire Supiot, who participated in the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games before returning to the Paralympic pools after suffering from Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, was thus outclassed by S8 in S9… four months from the deadline. Of course, I felt a moment of despondency. 

Everything collapsed with a word from the classifier. But the discouragement was short-lived. I’ve doubled my efforts.” With the help of a therapist and reinforced training, she achieved the minimum during the World Cup in Sheffield (United Kingdom) a few weeks later. Although she did not know the fate of swimmer Mallory Weggemann, reclassified on the eve of the London Games (article in English) in 2012 – which is no longer possible today – “losing faith” in the system, Claire Supiot deplores the brutality of the process.” It’s still violent, though.”

A feeling shared by the well-appointed Brazilian swimmer Andre Brasil. The man with 14 Paralympic medals in about 15 years of breathing in chlorinated water was brutally thrown out of the Paralympic categories. Its disability classification, until then at 285, the high border of the S10, has been revised to 286. “In my case, it’s S10 or nothing. I have a disability, but I can’t swim against the other handicapped, not the disabled at the Olympics. I am in the grey zone between Paralympism and Olympism!”

Andre Brasil
Andre Brasil

At issue was a classification of a muscle that was passed from 2 to 3 points by an examiner, who brutally ended his Games dreams. Even though his team published an article in a specialized journal (in English) pointing out the too wide interpretation of classifiers, nothing did. It’s like my career has been erased!” strangles the Brazilian, who has decided to stop wearing his Paralympic medals around his neck until he is restored to his rightful place.” Watch the 100-metre freestyle final in Rio, all the athletes hit the wall almost at the same time. What was the problem?”

Andre Brasil can rest assured that the classification system is not set in stone. We are moving towards more and more scientific examinations, says Jean-Michel Westelynck. Researchers are working on a way to measure body resistance in water using computer modelling, leaving less room for interpretation. But there will always be a form of injustice.” Some athletes even find that the Paralympic spirit has been lost along the way with this cross-country medal race. So did British athlete Bethany Woodward, who returned a medal from a relay after discovering that one of her teammates had been very generously ranked.

“Already, athletes among themselves have identified panels of classifiers who are more or less generous”, as one would say of a more severe teacher at the oral exams, sighs Orianne Lopez. “A reform of the classification would perhaps pass by a smaller number of classifiers. If we go all the way, we would demystify this process for good by removing the medical confidentiality on the reasons for classifying athletes in such and such a category. But it won’t come into effect at least before the Los Angeles Games in 2028.” When the new reform of the classification procedure is completed…

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