Paralympic classification system not fit for purpose

The classification system which underpins Paralympic sport cannot be said to be 'fit for purpose', Baroness Grey-Thompson has told a panel of MPs.

Paralympic athlete Olivia Breen, whose father, Michael, appeared before the DCMS yesterday. Picture: Getty.

The 11-time Paralympic champion was speaking as a witness at the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee hearing into claims British athletes have manipulated the process which ensures fair competition in Paralympic sport.

When asked by Giles Watling MP if the current system is fit for purpose, Grey-Thompson, pictured, 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 answer that question right now.”

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Grey-Thompson was the first of three witnesses to appear before the influential panel, with classification campaigner Michael Breen and British Paralympic Association chief executive Tim Hollingsworth also giving oral evidence.

The former wheelchair racer turned parliamentarian was mainly questioned about the evidence she gathered during the duty of care in sport review she did on behalf of DCMS last year. Grey-Thompson told the panel that some athletes had told her they had been threatened with deselection from teams for raising concerns about the classification of other athletes.

This claim was picked up by Breen, who used his daughter Olivia’s experience as an example. The sports lawyer told the MPs that Olivia, a sprinter 
and long jumper, was originally told she would be selected for the 4x100 metres relay at last year’s Rio Games but was then dropped at the last moment and replaced with an athlete “who had not been doing any relay training or was even at the holding camp”.

This claim was one of several serious allegations made by Breen, who said he was appearing before the panel as a spokesman for a group of concerned athletes and their parents. Breen named British sprinter Sophie Hahn as an example of an athlete who has wrongly been put in the T38 class. He claimed this was privately acknowledged to him by British para-athletics head coach Paula Dunn.

Having been reminded by committee chair Damian Collins not to name the athlete, Breen explained this was an athlete with “remitting and relapsing” multiple sclerosis in the T38 class, which he repeated described as the “traditional” home for athletes with cerebral palsy.

Breen said this case was an example of how athletes are currently classified by people without adequate medical expertise, international classifications are sometimes carried out by people of the same nationality as the athlete and “it is all too easy” for national governing bodies to exert influence to ensure certain athletes get the right classification.

He then claimed that International Paralympic Committee’s summer sports boss Ryan Montgomery told him British athletes had been gaming 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. This explosive claim was then followed up by another when he said former United Kingdom Athletics chairman and World 
Para Athletics technical committee boss Ed Warner told the IPC’s top lawyer Mike Townley to “drop” his probe into the classification system.

During his appearance before the DCMS, Hollingsworth said he agreed with the IPC’s review of the classification system, stating “it is time to look at leaving classification to an independent body”. He also wants British sport, across the board, to introduce better whistleblowing and grievance procedures for athletes.

Meanwhile, Eriksson tweeted that he was watching online and found it “shocking to hear Mr Breen bluntly lying”.