Paralympics in panic: athletes speak out

Posted 1 year ago by David McManus
Image courtesy of FocusDzign (via Shutterstock)
Image courtesy of FocusDzign (via Shutterstock)

It’s all over the news, but what does the future hold for bad sports of the Paralympic Games? Why would someone try to cheat the spirit of determination from their peers? Here’s a rundown of what’s got the world talking.

In the 2000 Sydney Paralympic Games, there were multiple scandals related to athletes pretending to have disabilities or misleading classification officials as to the extent of their impairment.

The former head of the Spanish Federation for Mentally Handicapped Sports, Fernando Vincente Martin, had enabled the Spanish basketball team to compete, although that team, which won the gold medal against Russia, was alleged to only have two players with intellectual disabilities in a team of twelve athletes.

It was a scandal which rocked Australia and the world of Para-athleticism at the time, but former Paralympians and officials have come forward to say that the issue is widespread and many are calling for change ahead of the upcoming Games.

A Four Corners investigation into cheating, which aired this week, highlighted the malingering or intentional exaggeration of disabilities in the classification process for the Paralympic Games.

The International Paralympic Committee’s (IPC) classification code review began in 2021 and will span three years, but with the 2024 Summer Paralympic Games held in Paris, France — many are joining the call for immediate action.

In September, 20 delegates from National Paralympic Committees and 52 representatives from International Federations arrived in the German city of Siegburg to discuss the ongoing IPC review.

“We will now continue the dialogue around the code review as we progress through this consultation phase and will work towards producing a revised draft next year, when we expect to meet with our members again, hopefully in an even bigger number,” said Tea Cisic, IPC’s head of classification.

Currently, there are 10 disability categories for Paralympics, each with their own classification.

Each category corresponds to the condition of the athlete’s impairment and classifications are assessed on the basis of impairment severity.

With a new Classification Code for competing athletes expected after the Summer event in Paris and the Winter 2026 Games in Milan, former Paralympians have spoken out about how easy and prevalent exploitation is.

“Athletes who should legitimately be winning medals are losing opportunities to get on the podium for their country because they’re competing against people who are cheating,” wrote dual Paralympic gold-medal winning cyclist Peter Brooks in an ABC op-ed.

“It’s not just happening in one country and it’s not just happening in one sport. It should be stamped out.

Dr Dia Pernot, head of classification for World Para Nordic Skiing, suggested that the issue is not just limited to the actions of the athletes themselves, but as with the Sydney basketball scandal, is systemic.

“In these cases, there needs to be disciplinary action against the coach, team and [national sporting federation].

“The athlete may themselves be an ‘innocent’ victim of their coach,” she said.

Paralympics Australia’s Classification Manager Cathy Lambert is among those calling for change, joining the German Classification Consultant, Winnie Timans, in requesting the formation of an independent organisation to deal with the matter.

In 2016, the IPC investigated 80 athletes suspected of misrepresentation, however not a single inquiry was found to warrant action on behalf of the Committee.

Former Chief Executive of the IPC Xavier Gonzalez stepped down from the role in 2019, having overseen the Committee since 2004. Gonzalez stated that cheating was rampant in the Paralympics and athletes would routinely downplay their abilities or play up their impairment.

“Trying to do things with classification to win an advantage is not a thing that the Paralympic movement can tolerate,” he said.

Among those highlighted in the Four Corners report, Australian cyclist Stuart Jones is alleged to have cheated the system in the 2021 Tokyo Paralympic Games and world championship ‘trike’ class events.

Jones’ former partner Sandy Kryzius claims that meetings with AusCycling had contained insinuations about, or leniency with, Jones’ ability to ride a two-wheel bicycle.

These claims were supported by former cycling club member, solicitor Jennifer Short, who told Four Corners that she had raced against Stuart in 2017 and was impressed with his ability to maintain his balance along the route.

The ‘trike’ class, for reference, is for Paralympian cyclists to ride with three-wheeled cycles and is reserved for athletes with impairments which may impact their ability to balance on a two-wheeled bike.

Stuart was unable to respond to Four Corners’ journalists, with his lawyer stating that it would be inappropriate to comment, given ongoing defamation proceedings related to “similar allegations.”

Another Paralympic athlete, Indian discus thrower Vinod Kumar was alleged to have intentionally misrepresented his impairment in the 2020 Games, which resulted in his bronze medal being revoked and a two year ineligibility ban imposed by the Board of Appeal of Classification for World Para Athletics.

“The classification system is crucial to ensure fair competition and this case shows how committed World Para Athletics is to protect the integrity of the sport,” said Christian Holtz, Managing Director of World Para Sport, commenting on Kumar’s disqualification.

The greatest part of the Paralympic Games is the spirit of never giving up, despite what life throws at you and being able to compete against others that have overcome adversity too. However, the problem which persists is that without effective oversight over the classification system dictated by the IPC, there is an incentive for athletes to undersell their own capabilities and overshadow others that have worked so hard to get there.

It’s a tricky question and one which many wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole, but how do you believe that impairment can be classified or monitored to ensure an equal playing field, when each disability impacts a person in a different way?

Chair of the code drafting committee, Scott Field, recognises the need for a “[…] better, more equitable Paralympic movement,” but internally, IPC documents suggest that misrepresentation remains a “major threat” to the integrity of the Games.


For articles that touch on similar topics, please visit the Disability Support Guide article on understanding the different levels of autism and to check out the Four Corners report, please visit the YouTube link here.