Many readers will have been raised in families where some subjects were not discussed. For example, religion, sex, politics and money were most often banned. That was never the case in my home. Nothing was off limits. The more sensitive the subject, the more vigorous the debate.

As the years have passed, I have become more cautious. The subject of this Swimwatch post, Sophie Pascoe, certainly requires extreme caution. Why? Because after these Paralympic Games Pascoe is a sacred icon. In the eyes of Television New Zealand Pascoe has risen to heights above those achieved by Lydia Ko. A few weeks ago, I thought that was impossible.

And so, putting to one side the effusive adulation and misinformation peddled by TVNZ what is Pascoe’s Tokyo Paralympic reality? How would a rational critic score her performance. New Zealand was not able to rely on TVNZ or the NZ Herald for that sort of sanity. Perhaps we can help them out.


Considering just the events Pascoe swam in Tokyo what has her history been at each Olympic competition? The table below tells that story.

Event Beijing London Rio Tokyo
100 Breaststroke 1.22.58 1.18.38 Did Not Swim 1.20.32
100 Backstroke 1.10.57 1.06.69 1.07.04 1.11.15
200 Medley 2.35.21 2.25.65 2.24.90 2.32.73
100 Freestyle 1.05.90 1.00.89 59.85 1.02.37
100 Butterfly 1.10.53 1.04.43 1.02.65 1.09.31

Comparing Rio and Tokyo then Pascoe was a huge 6.5% slower in Tokyo than she was five years ago in Rio. So how did she still win two gold medals, a silver and a bronze? The answer, I suspect, is that between Paralympics she changed her disability category from S10 to the slower S9 classification. The table below attempts to test this by showing the place Pascoe would have achieved if her classification had not changed and she had continued to swim in the same para category (S10 or in breaststroke SB9) as she had for the previous 12 years and 3 previous Olympic Games.


Event Beijing London Rio Tokyo S10
100 Breaststroke 1st 2nd DNS 7th
100 Backstroke 1st 2nd 1st 6th
200 Medley 1st 1st 1st 6th
100 Freestyle 9th 1st 2nd 8th
100 Butterfly 2nd 1st 1st 5th

I have very little understanding of the para classification process. It seems to be shrouded in mystery and hidden behind the cloak of confidential medical information. Did Pascoe’s disability suddenly get worse? Were the criteria changed? After three Paralympic Games why was Pascoe unexplainably allowed to race against slower competition? To properly evaluate her performance, we need to understand the answers to these questions.

Why? Because an apples-to-apples comparison between Pascoe’s performance in Tokyo and Rio appears to be that she swam 6.5% slower than she did five years ago and if she had swum against the same competition as she had in three previous Paralympic Games, Pascoe would be flying home with no medals at all. Her best swim would have been 5th in the 100m butterfly.

It seems like the classification process could do with a dose of fresh air. From a layman’s point of view, it seems to come up with some odd results. For example, many of the women Pascoe was competing against in her new slower S9 category had lost an arm. Pascoe has lost the effective use of a leg. Every swim coach in the world knows good swimmers achieve around 20% of their propulsion from their kick and 80% from their arms. That means, doesn’t it, that Pascoe’s competition in Tokyo has lost half of 80% of their propulsion (40%) and Pascoe has lost half of 20% of her propulsion (10%). Why is a loss of 40% having to compete with a loss of only 10%? Or as is highly likely, is there something I don’t understand.

Which brings us to the TVNZ’s decision to broadcast misinformation. Some would call it fake news. In discussing Pascoe’s results the TV1 journalist said Pascoe had just won another medal in her S9 classification for her fourth Olympic Games. That was not true. Tokyo was the first time (apart from breaststroke) Pascoe has swum S9. At all the previous Games Pascoe has swum in the faster S10 category. TVNZ has a responsibility to accuracy. In its enthusiasm to worship, it failed to meet that responsibility on this occasion.

It would be a shocking injustice to suggest that Sophie Pascoe’s swimming career is anything else but fantastic and remarkable. I have watched in stunned amazement her swim at competitions and at training. Competing in the NZ Open Championships she has displayed talent, determination, and class beyond belief. She is an icon in New Zealand sporting history.

But was her record in Tokyo part of that stellar career. Or was it something less? Was it an old boxer’s one fight too many? And why does it matter? After all I’m sure when the reclassification was applied for all the rules were honestly followed. But was a mistake made? I don’t know. There is a guy playing grand slam tennis just now who rightly says his frequent and extended trips to the toilet comply with the rules. But are they right? Andy Murray doesn’t think so. I was at the Sydney Aquatic Centre the night an Australian swimmer came within a whisker of breaking the Australian and World backstroke record by pulling himself along the lane line. At the time that too was legal. But FINA introduced a rule banning the practice. Is it time TVNZ looked rationally at Pascoe’s performance in Tokyo and explained it to New Zealand without the emotional hype that has coloured and maybe distorted their reporting during the meet?      

Honesty matters because large amounts of prize money and sponsorship are paid on the basis of medals – not on the quality of performance. Medals and quality of performance are not always the same thing. In my opinion, and I am not an expert on para swimming, there are questions over how well Pascoe swam in Tokyo that do need to be clearly and unemotionally explained. Comparisons with her earlier career need to be accurate and honest.

0 responses. Leave a Reply

  1. Swimwatch


    Be the first to leave a comment!

Comments are closed.