Tony Sainsbury

One can imagine the incredulity of insidethegames readers to see a voluntary leg amputation and sport mentioned in the same breath recently. But in the world of Paralympic sport - or disabled sport as it used to be called - many of us have lived in for nearly 50 years now, it’s not that unbelievable.

What is unbelievable to peers of those decades is that the genesis of the statement can be found in classification systems that many fought hard to bury forever. What seems to have risen, Lazarus-like, is the re-emergence of 'one rule suits all' and where the administrative efficiencies of a sport takes precedence over the fundamental values of the sport, and more importantly the athletes who give their lives to its promotion.

In the early days of disabled sport players were classified on what their impairment limited them to do and by doctors qualified in the analysis of their impairment, but who for the most part had little or no knowledge of sport generally and even less about the dynamics of the sport of the individual in front of them. Cheating was rife! It was a sport in itself. It encouraged the social athlete to do everything possible to fain a higher level of impairment than was the reality in order to enter an easier class where training was lighter and possible success was easier to accomplish. This was a particular issue in the explosive, highly technical sports - athletics, swimming, wheelchair basketball - and less so in archery or lawn bowls, for example.

The nations and their athletes railed against the system defended by doctors, doctors born out of the rehabilitation world. And for years nobody did anything but moan until, in the late 1970s, a German sports science doctor proposed the hypothesis that athletes should be classified based on what they could do and not on what they couldn’t and not as a generality for any sport on the programme but for their chosen sport only. The logic being that each sport needed its own classification system. His name Horst Strohkendl.

With numerous players now ineligible for Tokyo 2020, International Wheelchair Basketball Federation President Ulf Mehrens has said the organisation will call for changes to the International Paralympic Committee classification rules ©Getty Images
With numerous players now ineligible for Tokyo 2020, International Wheelchair Basketball Federation President Ulf Mehrens has said the organisation will call for changes to the International Paralympic Committee classification rules ©Getty Images

Of course, the incumbent classification doctors were up in arms and worried that such a system would be an administrator’s nightmare, with hundreds of classes. Wheelchair basketball’s leadership pressed on regardless and even ran the risk of exclusion from the big multi-sport events. Why? Because it was clearly the right thing to do and was embraced wholeheartedly by 99.9 per cent of the players as it created a level playing field. Functional classification was born in the early 1980s.

What’s interesting about the incumbent doctors' prediction is that they completely ignored the consequences of maintaining the old system apart from its unfairness. At the 1988 Seoul Paralympics, with all the impairment groups present for the first time, nearly three times as many Paralympic medals were awarded than for the Olympics weeks earlier. For example, in the 100 metres track event, there were more than 20 gold medals! Each impairment group had its own classes.

What the functional system enabled was the combination of individuals from different impairment groups into events based on their potential to perform in that range of ability. Post-South Korea the leadership recognised that the value of a medal and the credibility of the Movement was in jeopardy and the functional system could be the answer - or at least part of a better answer.

Sports began to copy wheelchair basketball and classify players not on a masseur’s bench being poked and pummeled, but in their sport specific environment - the basketball court, the track or the pool. And more importantly it was not doctors making the judgements anymore but ex-players or sports scientists, some of whom happened to have some medical background but which was not a prerequisite.

Sports for the first time were able to determine what their value set should be, who could play and under what conditions. Sports like wheelchair basketball analysed what it was that might prevent an individual from playing basketball - running, jumping and pivoting as with an unimpaired person. These were the fundamentals of the sport and opened up wheelchair basketball to those to whom a high-performance sporting career was closed because of their impairment. For millions of people in the world who find themselves in this grey world there is no impairment group or disability-specific group that looks after their sporting ambitions. Wheelchair basketball was able to offer that entry.

Now the critics and particularly those in the current debate will argue, well, that means the Paralympic wheelchair basketball final could be played by totally ambulant and minimally-impaired individuals. That’s most certainly not the case as wheelchair basketball’s own classification system ensures that there are always five players on court at any one time with a range of impairments and not just the controversial 4 and 4.5 players who have a minimal disability as defined by the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation (IWBF).

This narrative is not an attempt to denigrate the responsibility the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) has to ensure that the Paralympic Games are the preserve of those with impairments. But fundamentally the principle of each sport determining its own destiny and systems based on defendable criteria enhancing the Paralympic Games because of its inclusivity has to be upheld.

Running, jumping and pivoting without consequences because of impairment or lack of function is part of that principle. The current public and emotional debate ignores the principle of the sport deciding what’s best and necessary for its constituents. The fact that Sir Philip Craven, the former President of IPC and ex-President of IWBF, was himself a co-promoter of the functional system, not as a minimally impaired player but as a low-point player who still supports the system passionately today, is indicative of his faith in the sport and its systems.

Wheelchair basketball has been threaten with Paralympic exclusion unless classification changes are made ©Getty Images
Wheelchair basketball has been threaten with Paralympic exclusion unless classification changes are made ©Getty Images

What is upsetting more than the subject matter is that the IPC, for all its justification about repeated warnings and consequences, did not see its responsibility as the standard setter and role model of the Paralympic Movement not to fan the flames of this organisation-on-organisation conflict. The timing earlier this year, the year of the Paralympic Games in Tokyo, of it exclusion threat was and remains insensitive. It was incumbent on the IPC to continue to find a way through for this blue riband of sports whose absence from the Paralympic Games is unthinkable even to others less passionate than the author.

Not only does the Movement seem to be returning to the dark days of the 1970s, where one size fits all and where there is no justifiable wriggle room, some might argue and have argued that the self-same proponents of the current strategy have consistently failed to address more serious issues at the other end of the impairment spectrum as to why there are fewer and fewer participants with severe impairments. The argument that the population is not out there for viable competition numerically is a poor one for an event which one can argue should be defending the inclusion of as wide a range of impairment as possible.

In spite of all the paragraphs above, what’s missing is the individual and the consequences for them. Those being declared ineligible who have played the sport for years and given their lives to its promotion at the highest level are being singled out for similar exclusion as if they have done something wrong, and without personal recourse and with immediate effect in a Paralympic year. Is there a human rights issue here one might ask?

To drive someone to think about amputating a leg is evidence that insufficient consideration has been given to the process of refining, if that’s what it is, current systems. And while the IWBF is not without fault, the IPC needs to look at itself and its priorities across the whole classification spectrum. IWBF Europe has been the most coherent voice lately in announcing that there will be no changes to its classification rules for its own events. It’s a pity others could not have given similar athlete reassurances until a more athlete-centered resolution could be found.