British Paralympic athletes have been threatened with losing their places if they speak out on issues with classification, Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson has told a panel of MPs.
Baroness Grey-Thompson, an 11-time Paralympic champion, also said coaches and team managers were sometimes complicit in abuse of the classification system by preventing discussion of the subject in this way.
The former wheelchair racer explained she found evidence of ‘bullying and control’ to stop Para athletes speaking out and that she had heard from athletes and their parents who believed the classification system was open to abuse and had been abused by other British athletes.
Grey-Thompson was the first of three witnesses scheduled to appear before the influential Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee hearing into claims British athletes have manipulated the process, with classification campaigner Michael Breen supporting her evidence on athletes’ fears.
“Athletes are really fightened, intimidated and bullied over a period of years,” he said. “When you go into UKA team meetings you’re told not to discuss classification. In addition to that, you’re told if you step out of line they’ll set their lawyers on you and then most importantly is the spectre of deselection. We’ve seen that with our daughter Olivia who was told she would be in the relay team. then told she wouldn’t and was replaced by another athlete who wasn’t in relay squad. We’ve been used as an example.”
Breen, meanwhile, was asked by Damian Collins, the chair of the committee, not to name athletes who he believes have benefitted from being wrongly classified as UK Athletics – the sports governing body – has taken advantage of loopholes in the system as thirst for medals took hold before London 2012.
Grey-Thompson, who authored a report into duty of care for athletes in Britain earlier this year, admitted intentional misrepresentation of disability was a major problem in Paralympic sport. She said the current system was open to abuse by athletes and governing bodies.
“There will always be athletes one side of the line or the other but medals, sponsorship, media coverage have increased the issue of misclassification,” said Grey-Thompson, “It has similarities with doping in Olympic sport, someone pretending they can do less than they can when they are being classified. I think there was an escalation leading into 2012 and we have to sort it out, Britain has an amazing opportunity for us to be the gold standard.”
The International Paralympic Committee has submitted written evidence to the committee which denies Breen’s claims that British athletes have gained through the classification system.
Following individual case assessment which included studying detailed medical diagnostic information the IPC concluded that the athletes were appropriately classified. The IPC also confirmed to UK Athletics, following this verification, that the athletes named by Breen did not represent a concern to the IPC.
Tim Hollingsworth, the British Paralympic Association chief executive, denied in his evidence to the committee that the system was not fit for purpose saying “the classification system was one of those growing pains that needs to be addressed” as part of the way in which para sport was developing globally.
UK Athletics further stated: “We take a very hard line approach to ensuring classification validity of athletes who receive government funding in the UK and as a result have significant additional medical information on each athlete that should fill any perceived gaps in underpinning evidence. We are therefore proposing to share absolutely everything we have with you relating to these three athletes should you wish to review any of them following the information provided by Mr Breen.”
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