Tim  Hollingsworth

Do you know your T44 from your S6? What about your C5 from your BC3?

Unless you are steeped in Para-sport the chances are the answer is no. Despite the successful and innovative introduction of Channel 4’s "Lexi explainer" for the Paralympic Games, the classification process and classes involved are many, various and complicated.

They are also fundamental and essential. Accurate classification is the bedrock of Paralympic sport, seeking to allow athletes across every sport and discipline to compete against each other with similar functionality and impairment whilst also ensuring the depth and standard of competition that has made the Paralympic Games one of the biggest, most celebrated and inspirational sporting events in the world.

Given this significance, and as global interest in the sport and the Paralympic Games continues to grow exponentially, it is no surprise that it has led to greater focus and scrutiny than ever before - including recent public suggestions of unfairness and allegations of intentional misrepresentation (where an athlete deliberately exaggerates their impairment to gain a competitive advantage) in the classification process.

That is why I am pleased to have been invited to give evidence to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) Select Committee on Tuesday (October 31) on this topic, so I can further assist understanding of how classification has developed and is delivered both in the UK and internationally, and importantly set out what the British Paralympic Association is doing to ensure that collectively we keep pace with the rapid advances in para sport.

I will be clear about the British Paralympic Association's (BPA) formal responsibilities - which are limited in terms of the testing process and the management of athlete classification. At national level in the UK that is the preserve of the national governing bodies (NGB) for each sport - quite rightly, as classification is sport specific and needs that specific knowledge and expertise to be in place for the process to be appropriate and robust. 

The Lexi Explainer, pioneered by Channel 4, aims to make the classification system used in the Paralympic Games as easy to follow as possible ©Channel 4
The Lexi Explainer, pioneered by Channel 4, aims to make the classification system used in the Paralympic Games as easy to follow as possible ©Channel 4

Internationally it is the responsibility of the International Federations where the process is carried out by "neutral" classifiers from other countries and regions. Both involve a combination of medical diagnosis and practical functional tests and vitally include observation of the athlete concerned in competition.  In all cases, it is a fact that international classification (ie that done by a third party representing the International Federation) supersedes that done nationally.  

Both are driven by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), and there has been a huge step forward since 2015 and the publication of a new revised Athlete Classification Code. Within that the BPA’s role as a National Paralympic Committee is defined primarily as overseeing and supportive - to monitor its implementation nationally, to support NGB member compliance, to provide platforms and opportunities for those involved in the process to develop and improve their knowledge and skills, and to be sure that ethical standards are being properly upheld. 

As part of this responsibility and assessing how best to ensure classification’s continued successful development, we have identified a number of key areas where we believe there are opportunities to work collectively to further protect the integrity of the sport.

A huge part of this is increasing education, awareness and understanding. Whether across the athletes themselves, with coaches and other support personnel, with parents and others involved in the athletes’ careers, with the media and indeed across the sporting landscape it is really important that the process in place now is both recognised and understood - especially since the introduction of the new Code. The gap in understanding that exists (for example about the nature and significance of medical diagnosis in the overall process) is potentially one of the reasons why recent concerns and allegations have been expressed. 

To address this we would advocate introducing an education programme that could be delivered in a similar way to the UK Anti-Doping programme, which is mandatory for all those competing at international level. It would be delivered proportionately to athletes competing at all levels from grassroots to elite and create a better understanding of the system leading to fewer accusations of unfairness.  We are already building a system wide programme of training and development for National Classifiers and supporting NGBs in their own policies and programmes.

Alongside this is the recognition that at both national and international level the existing process could and should be more consistent and robust in its application. At the moment while possessing expertise, the vast majority of classifiers are voluntary. The new IPC President, Andrew Parsons, made the professionalisation of classification a manifesto commitment.  We would support this in enabling performance to be better monitored, improve accountability, and increase availability of experienced classifiers for national competitions worldwide. Rolling this out at national level is also something that we would advocate, to ensure too wide a gap does not open up between an athlete’s national and international experience.

Thirdly we recognise there is no clear independent complaints procedure - a whistleblowing process - for potential appeals and allegations regarding abuse of the classification process.

Having a reliable classification system is important for the future of the Paralympic Movement ©Getty Images
Having a reliable classification system is important for the future of the Paralympic Movement ©Getty Images

This does need to be addressed and there is now an opportunity for Government to consider taking a lead role in doing so. An independent body could be devised in one of a number of ways - in the form of an ombudsman as recommended in the Duty of Care Review carried out by Baroness Grey-Thompson, strengthening of the Sports Resolutions system with a panel specifically for classification or as part of the UK Sport integrity unit. We stand ready to work with Government and other key partners to assess the viability of each model and ensure that is both affordable and appropriate to the needs of everyone involved in the British sporting system.

Lastly it should be said that intentional misrepresentation is one of the biggest risks to the integrity of Paralympic sport - indeed the BPA was active in ensuring that the new IPC code included an increased sanction for this of up to four years. The ethical integrity of Paralympic sport is paramount and there is no place for anyone seeking to cheat the system.

These are all areas where we can strengthen and improve the classification process. But that is not to say it is broken - far from it. I believe it is more robust than ever before. Very recently, we’ve seen rule changes published by two of the biggest sports - athletics and swimming - based on feedback from nations and classifiers and informed by multi-discipline research. Classification continues to evolve to keep pace with the accelerated development of Paralympic sport.

And for all the recent allegations made, it is worth repeating that there has never been a case of a British athlete being found guilty of Intentional Misrepresentation and no material evidence has been provided to suggest it should be otherwise.

Above all I will be reminding the DCMS Select Committee how important our athletes’ success at recent Paralympic Games is. Not only as a reward for their hard work and that of the personnel that support them, but because of the national pride our collective success engenders, and most importantly of the wider impact those medals can have on society and in challenging perceptions of disability. Fairness in sport is everything and, as a nation proud of our success in Paralympic sport on and off the field of play, we remain firmly committed to ensuring the United Kingdom will continue to play a leading role both here and around the world.

Liam Morgan is away