Road To The Olympic Games

Money at Play·Analysis

Are some countries hacking the Paralympic system to win more medals?

As the competition for medals grows more intense, some nations may be turning to questionable tactics to boost their results in the Paralympics. Now Canada must decide if it wants to play that game, writes Deidra Dionne.

Disability classifications open to manipulation, deceit

A former able-bodied national team swimmer who now competes in the Paralympics, Ukraine's Denys Dubrov won eight medals this year in Rio, including three gold. (Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

At 5-foot-5 and without any traditional acrobatic training, I wasn't cut out to be a freestyle skiing aerialist. 

As a skier (not a gymnast) growing up, I took to aerials because I loved the sensation of flying, but a lot of things were working against me. I had to learn how to flip and twist. I was on the verge of being too tall. I had no innate air sense.

I succeeded against the odds because I had other, less tangible, skills that were a perfect fit for my sport. Mentally, I was built to fly 40 feet in the air and do triple twisting back flips. But it took time and investment.

Today, as our sport system becomes more sophisticated, athletes like me are less likely to make the cut. In a high-performance sport environment with limited funds, time and cost efficiency are more important than ever to Canada's success on the international stage. 

In this world, an athlete's physical makeup can make or break them. Being small, tall, heavy, thin, quick (or not enough of those things) can be justification enough for investing (or not investing) in an athlete. Having the ideal physical measurements doesn't guarantee winning, but it increases the odds.

Manipulation and deceit

But what if I told you that the system for talent identification and funding for Paralympic athletes can result in someone being told they're either too disabled or not disabled enough? It's different, right? It produces an instant negative, visceral reaction.  

This is a reality affecting the values of Paralympic sport. The more medals matter (financially and ideologically) and the more winning is cherished above all else, the more the system is prone to manipulation by athletes and countries looking to increase their medal haul.

For those unfamiliar with how the Paralympics are structured, here's a simplified overview. An athlete with some form of eligible impairment must meet minimum disability criteria. Once determined eligible, each athlete is assessed and classified. Each category they are placed into reflects a different competition, with athletes grouped by the degree of activity limitation resulting from their impairment. Athletes are assessed at various times throughout their career and, in some sports, before competitions.

The goal is to create a system akin to grouping athletes by age, gender or weight — a system allowing each athlete to compete on a more even playing level.

Logically, it makes sense that being the least disabled in your class gives you a clear advantage. Therefore it follows that targeting the least-disabled athletes within each category to invest in is likely the most economical way of increasing your country's chances of winning medals.

But classification is hardly a science. It involves the assessment of a medical professional combined with the decision of a classification panel — a truly impossible attempt to categorize uniquely individual disabilities. Manipulation and deceit to achieve the most ideal classification has become a hot-button issue. It's a black cloud threatening to tarnish the Paralympic movement beyond repair.

Ukrainian swimmer raises questions

Controversial classifications are plentiful. Look no further than the 200 IM S10 swimming event in Rio, where Canadian Paralympic legend and defending champion Benoit Huot finished fourth behind a Ukrainian podium sweep.

The winner, Denys Dubrov, was a former able-bodied national team swimmer with no visible disabilities who only started competing in Paralympic swimming in 2014. His times are closer to Michael Phelps' than they are to the defending Paralympic champion Huot.

Dubrov won eight medals this summer in Rio, including three gold.

So is Ukraine just being strategic and implementing talent identification to maximize the country's medal count, or are they manipulating the system to win more medals?

Canada was once a powerhouse in Paralympic sport. But in more recent Games, it has proven more difficult to win medals. So how much should our medal count matter? Is Canada ready to implement aggressive talent ID to match the tactics of other countries?    

Every athlete will tell you they want to win. It's innate. It's why they become elite at what they do. Most athletes will also tell you they won't compromise their values to do it. The Paralympic classification system isn't always fair, but does that mean Canada should ensure our funding of Paralympic sport is dictated solely by medal return?  

Sure, winning matters, but sometimes being the voice for change to an imperfect system is more important.


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