Paralympics

Bureaucratic fight forcing some athletes to miss out on Tokyo Games

Canada's wheelchair basketball program will go into Tokyo with a different team than it qualified with due to new eligibility policies put in place by the sport's organizing bodies.

Veteran Paralympian David Eng among those ruled ineligible under new criteria

Veteran wheelchair basketball player David Eng, seen above at the Paralympic World Cup in 2010, has represented Canada in four Paralympic Games, earning two gold medals and one silver. (Jon Super/The Associated Press)

"It's not the way his career should end."

That's the sentiment coming from Canada's wheelchair basketball community after hearing captain David Eng was pulled from the national team less than a year away from Tokyo 2020.

"That's the most disheartening thing about it is that it's kind of been ripped away from him," executive director at Wheelchair Basketball Canada Wendy Gittens told CBC Sports. "He's not deserving of this whatsoever."

Eng's long-standing career, which includes three Paralympic medals, is collateral damage from a battle between the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation (IWBF) and the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) over athlete impairment classification. The years-long disagreement came to a head January 31, 2020, when the IPC forced the IWBF to implement their approved action plan to reassess all athletes under their policy, or see wheelchair basketball removed from Tokyo 2020 entirely.

Taking into consideration many of its constituent organizations depend on the Paralympics for funding, the IWBF started a months-long action plan that February and started collecting and reassessing medical documents of up to 4,500 athletes.

Despite Eng having one of the 10 eligible impairments under the policy (he was born with one leg shorter than the other), he did not meet the new minimal criteria. So he is among the first wave of athletes to see years of hard work toward Tokyo thrown away.

And while classification is an important part of the Paralympic movement, the question many are asking is: why now?

"It's unbelievable two organizations have put athletes' livelihood at stake this close to a Games," Gittens said. "We're very critical of the timing of it.

"It's very unfair to athletes who have given up years of their lives, who have trained and dedicated themselves to the sport, and are now being questioned on their eligibility [when they] previously have been eligible. We just don't agree with it."

Who will be at Tokyo?

The IPC's January announcement to threaten wheelchair basketball's exclusion from Tokyo 2020 took the community by surprise since no athletes or NSO's were included in the discussions, but there was no sense players could be in jeopardy.

"If you read the IWBF statement from January responding to the IPC statement, there's a quote from the head classifier for IWBF Regina Costa that said 'it is important to stress the eligibility of our athletes is not in doubt, merely we use different language in our classifications,'" Gittens said. "It was never communicated that this situation wasn't as straightforward as that."

The IPC gave the IWBF a May 29, 2020 deadline to complete phase one, which is reassessing all 4.0 and 4.5 athletes, which has now been extended to Aug. 1 because of COVID-19 complications. NSO's don't know exactly when they'll learn the results of phase two of the plan, which reassesses the 1 to 3.5 classified athletes, but the IWBF's target date is Dec. 2020. So Team Canada won't know their final Paralympic roster until 8 months before the Games.

It's too soon to say whether Team Canada could lose just one or two players, or a higher, more detrimental number.

"I question whether they had the athletes best interests in mind," Gittens said of the agreement between the IPC and the IWBF. "We're incredibly disappointed the two organizations could not work out a transition plan to have this dealt with post-Tokyo.

"Not to say that the process shouldn't be happening, it should have been happening long before this: but there should have been a transition plan put in place."

In a statement to CBC Sports, the IWBF said they acknowledge the impact of timing and did what they could to avoid it. They reiterated they were not in control of the deadlines, and that they requested a transitional period for any impacted players involved in the first phase of the process, but it was denied by the IPC.

"We regret that the IPC considered it necessary to demand a review of eligibility for players so close to the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, which we believe was not in the best interest of the players or teams' preparation," they said. "The decision was made difficult as it risked potentially putting players, who in our eyes are currently eligible, of no longer being eligible due to us aligning with the IPC Athlete Classification Code."

CBC Sports reached out to the IPC for comment, but they have yet to respond. 

Team Canada regroups ahead of Games

To players like Eng's teammate Patrick Anderson, the implications of this process go beyond complicated logistics.

"It goes a little bit beyond disappointment, probably into hurt," Anderson said. "Minimal disability athletes are these bridge athletes in a very positive way for the Paralympic movement.

"But it sounds like a decade-long trend towards more inclusion in wheelchair basketball, from paraplegics to polio to amputee to minimal disability, a trend that's happened over many decades seems like it's coming to an end. And [for David] to be told right at the end by the very movement he championed and celebrated and poured his life into that he's not welcome anymore ... That has to hurt."

Anderson is of the opinion that "if you can sit, you can play" since rules already make things fair, but also appreciates the IPC and IWBF have difficult jobs managing an equal playing field. And his sentiment is seemingly shared by the IWBF.

"IWBF still fully believes in our classification philosophy and that the sport should be inclusive to anyone with an eligible lower limb impairment who cannot play running basketball," they said. "We are extremely disappointed to be losing players to the international game due to aligning with the IPC's Code, but IWBF will continue to investigate and raise the issues surrounding the exclusion of certain health conditions and impairments to the IPC membership and encourage these be addressed in the next review of the current IPC Code, which is set to take place in 2021."

At the same time, Anderson admits this process has caused friction in the relationship between the athletes and organizations.

"Those are important relationships and it's going to take effort from us and, I hope, effort from them to repair those relationships and build trust so we can feel like we're pulled in the same direction for what's best for the sport and the Paralympic movement," Anderson said. "It raises important questions we're going to have to deal with, like whether we're going to let the IPC's vision of what the Paralympics should be determine what our vision of what wheelchair basketball should be."

"That is the conversation right now in the wheelchair basketball community."

In the meantime, athletes like Anderson are left picking up the pieces of their team while not only waiting for their own results, but preparing for a Paralympics during a pandemic with a team that may look different in the coming months.

"Dave was a huge lynch pin in 2016: I wasn't playing, there were a bunch of retirements," Anderson said. "So Dave was really huge in that stretch of the program that set us up in terms of funding and support for the next four years going into Tokyo.

"So it just gives me all the more motivation, if I'm eligible, to prepare as well as I possibly can and give my best effort. Because now I'm playing for Dave too."

About the Author

Jacqueline Doorey is a digital host and producer for CBCSports.ca

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