Perfect Para Puzzle

I have explained on several occasions that my knowledge of the para classification system is close to nil. Oh, I know a swimmer classified as 1 is seriously physically disabled and a classification of 10 is the mildest category of physical disability. I know that qualified, competent inspectors examine swimmers to allocate a disability category. Clearly the honesty of the allocation process is of the utmost importance.

The table below gives some idea of the time gap between the world records for category 1 and category 10 for women’s freestyle events.

Women’s Event Category 1 Category 10
50 Free 51.33 27.37
100 Free 1:50.48 59.17
200 Free 3:59.02 2:08.64

Being graded up or down a category makes a huge difference to a swimmer’s likelihood of success. This becomes serious when swimmers are being financially rewarded according to their competitive success. Cheating pays. There is a huge financial temptation to fake a more serious disability in order to secure better funding. Here is another table to illustrate that point. The table shows the average per category change in the world record times for each of the three events shown in the table above.

Women’s Event Per Category Change
50 Free 2.40 seconds
100 Free 5.13 seconds
200 Free 11.04 seconds

In other words, on average the difference between breaking a world record as a level 6 swimmer and a level 5 swimmer at 50 freestyle is 2.40 seconds. Clearly in this example there is a huge incentive to be classified as level five. A swimmer swimming two and a half seconds slower gets the same financial reward as if he or she had been classified as level six and was two and a half seconds faster.

It is no secret that I have little respect for the integrity of Swimming New Zealand (SNZ). Their behaviour over the report into complaints about my coaching has been a perfect example of crass dishonesty. For example the SNZ Chairman told the Stuff news website, “If you’re talking to people that are saying that hasn’t happened, then those people haven’t talked to me, and I’m not aware of it”. The extent to which Cotterill and SNZ are prepared to lie and have their lies published nationwide is illustrated best by this assertion. Cotterill says he is “not aware” I am claiming interference in my privacy. He is “not aware” I am asking for a copy of the Marris Report. The truth is that Cotterill has been told about my claim for a year (since 1 August 2018) by me, then by the Privacy Commissioner and finally by the HRRT. What Cotterill is saying is not true. It is a lie told for the purpose of avoiding providing access to my personal information.

The question is, I guess, would an organisation that is prepared to lie so badly and obviously in one area find any difficulty in fiddling a one category change to a para-swimmer’s categorisation? If Cotterill is prepared to lie about me for financial gain is he also prepared to allow the organisation to manipulate a few para classifications?

We need to keep in mind that SNZ has recently created a new position to look after their interest in para swimming. Why did they do that? It can’t be because Para Sport New Zealand (PSNZ) was doing a bad job; it was not. And please don’t tell me it was because of SNZ’s love and admiration for para swimmers. My guess is the truth is SNZ wanted to hitch a financial ride on the huge success of New Zealand’s para swimmers. SNZ wanted to muscle in on the successful job being done by PSNZ. Given the apparent willingness of SNZ to shoulder PSNZ out of the way in order to grab a share of PSNZ’s money pie, the question needs to be asked again. Would SNZ find any difficulty in fiddling a one category change to a para-swimmer’s categorisation?

When SNZ’s able body international results are non-existent, when successful para swimming can financially secure the life-style of those who work for SNZ, I ask again, would SNZ find any difficulty in fiddling a one category change to a para-swimmer’s categorisation? Are the good people who compete in para swimming being used by SNZ, an organisation with suspect honesty? It is a scary thought – without an easy answer.

Sadly it appears SNZ is not alone. Since I last wrote on this subject I have received comments from all over the world.  It seems to me the problems associated with para classification are clouded in mystery and medical confidentiality. It is impossibly difficult to know what’s going on. Everything may be honest and above board. We just do not know.

For example one of the most confusing cases appears to be the Australian para swimmer Lakeisha Patterson. Wikipedia tells me she has been consistently classified as S8 while competing in the 2015 World Championships in Glasgow, the 2106 Rio Olympic Games and the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. That seems straight forward enough. However an email tells me that in 2014 Patterson was classified down from S9 to S7. That is a huge change. She then moved again to S8. Then, for some reason, in 2019 another email tells me she has been regraded up to S9. What’s going on there? Have her numerous disabilities suddenly improved? Was the original classification of S9 or S7 wrong? Whatever the reason, Patterson now needs to swim an average of 22 seconds faster over 200m freestyle to achieve the same level of performance, as she did in 2014 when she was classified as S7.

I appreciate that swimmers with a disability are entitled to their medical privacy as much as anyone else. However when there are significant amounts of tax payers money being paid in grants and competition costs the demand for confidentiality has to be balanced by the public interest in knowing how its money is being spent. When it’s SNZ doing the spending, “Trust us,” is not sufficient.

Take the Australian Patterson example again. Recently I’ve heard she has been inflicted with early onset Parkinson’s disease and the associated symptom Micrographia (very advanced). But over the years I’m told there have also been reports of a stroke, Cerebral Palsy, Epilepsy, a clawed hand, a palsied arm and a dead leg. I wish there was a formal means of knowing what problems had gone into a classification. Patterson and every other para swimmer deserve that.

I’m not at all sure how to solve this type of para problem. Certainly somehow or another the perception of illnesses being invented in order to accommodate a swimmer’s wish to feed at the government’s money trough needs to be addressed. The way things are just now is no good for anyone. Clean para swimmers do not deserve to live under a cloud of suspicion not of their own making. Cheats should not be able to hide behind the medical secrecy and misinformation that clouds much of the current para classification process. Not everyone is a Sophie Pascoe whose disability is obvious. When swimmers have less obvious problems classification needs to be honest and publically transparent. Taking the word of SNZ would be extremely foolish. And that’s the problem. There are no consequences for classification cheating in para sport, you just get moved. That’s an environment SNZ just love. That’s an environment that puts taxpayer dollars at far too much risk.

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