Intentional Misrepresentation

I was recently attracted to a headline in the Australian press. It read “Allegations of cheating, threats and cover-ups aimed at Australian Paralympic swimming”.  My interest was piqued because I knew that after Jan Cameron had finished building a failed centralized swimming empire in New Zealand she returned to Australia and began working with para swimming.

Controversy appears to have followed Cameron across the Tasman Sea. From what I read, the para program in Australia is knee-deep in a cheating scandal. One report sent to me says that a Cameron coached swimmer, called Lakeisha Patterson, may be a suspect offender.

But I confess I know very little about para sport. I can only comment on the reports I have read. According to “The Ticket” reporter Tracy Holmes there is a serious problem. Here is a summarised extract from her December 3 report.

“The Australian Paralympic movement is being implicated in global concerns about cheating, intimidation and cover-ups. Swimming Australia is the focus of allegations that athletes are being encouraged to fake the extent of their disabilities to win medals.

Those who have complained say they have been warned to back off or face reprisals.

Australian Olympic and Paralympic swim coach Simon Watkins said, “I would say just about every group that you could identify as a stakeholder in the sport is aware of certain issues like those that you’ve highlighted.”

Most of the allegations focus on what is known as “intentional misrepresentation” during an athlete’s classification procedure. Athletes are allegedly being coached to cheat the system to boost their medal-winning chances in an easier category.

One swimmer, who asked for her name to be withheld, said she knows athletes are being coached to cheat the system. She detailed the lengths her coach told her to go to exaggerate her disability.

Melinda Downie is the mother of a Paralympic swimmer who is a dual gold medallist, a Commonwealth Games silver medallist and has been awarded an Order of Australia Medal for services to the sport.

Yet when Ms Downie raised her own concerns with the governing bodies — Swimming Australia and the Australian Paralympic Committee — she said she was threatened. She was told if she continued to discuss classification issues, her daughter’s team selection would be jeopardised.

She said lucrative gold medals, government funding and increased public profile are likely reasons tempting some to cheat. Swimming Australia receives the most funding of 16 Para sports from the Australian Sports Commission and its Winning Edge Program.

But Mr Anderson the CEO of Swimming Australia rejects allegations that the pressure to win gold is leading to cheating.”

It would be way above my paygrade to comment on the merit of all these accusations. They may or may not be true. I simply do not know. But what is relevant is their implication for para sport and para swimming in particular in both New Zealand and Australia. Para sport clearly needs reform; both to root out current cheats and avoid cheating in the future.

Whenever money is involved the temptation to cheat escalates; the need for vigilance grows. And para sport will not be exempt from that temptation. Already we have seen Swimming New Zealand attempt to compensate for the poor performance of open event swimmers by trumpeting the international success of para swimmers. Funding decisions will be affected. Sponsorships are on the line. Jobs depend on results. The financial rewards for “podium” finishes are high.

All the factors that led athletes to use drugs apply to “intentional misrepresentation” in para sport. By cheating and getting away with it, the athlete gets rewarded, the coach keeps his or her job and an administrator’s salary becomes easier to pay. Over three years High Performance Sport New Zealand has increased the funding of para sport from $2,155,000 to $2,400,000 to $2,500,000. The numbers involved in success are high and getting higher.

As the money goes up so does the temptation to cheat; to run the risk of having a swimmer allocated into a more severe category of disability; to gain a competitive advantage; to benefit from the “drug” of “intentional misrepresentation”.

So what is the answer?

Well clearly the answer is not to trust swimming federations or para committees to police themselves. There is way too much money involved for that to work. Asking the direct beneficiaries of the funding to rule impartially is unreasonable and certain to fail. In the case of drugs, sport established independent agencies to investigate and test for cheating. In New Zealand the agency is called “Drug Free Sport New Zealand”.

Without question the Australian reports confirm there is a need for similar independent agencies to monitor the para certification process. A commission of some sort should determine exactly how it would work and be funded. I see no reason why “Drug Free Sport New Zealand” could not be renamed something like “Fair Play Sport New Zealand” and be allocated the two functions, one of drug enforcement and the other of para classification.

Clearly para classification involves the primary function of controlling and monitoring the national classification process and ensuring it is compatible with worldwide best practice. But also the agency needs to be charged with detecting cases of fraud and imposing penalties where deliberate cheating is detected.

The turmoil in para swimming in Australia is a warning shot to para sport in New Zealand. It is clearly far better to implement policies now that avoid New Zealand having a serious problem in the future. Although New Zealand para sport has a very high reputation for honesty just now, as sure as God made little green apples, saying, “Oh it will never happen here in the future,” is not going to work.

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