Keith Antoine guest blog: Para sport classification is in the hands of the IPC

On episode 20 of SportSpiel top athletics coach Keith Antoine discussed his thoughts  on para sport classification. In this guest blog Keith writes about his views on the complex issue, which is no stranger to opinions coming from all corners of the sport.

By Keith Antoine

Recently, much has been said and written about the issues facing Paralympic sport around classification, governance, athlete welfare, competition opportunities and more. Much of the discourse has focused on particular aspects, however because the majority of aspects are so closely interconnected, for any progress to be effective a wider perspective may be helpful. So this is one person’s attempt to take a more holistic view and join up some of the dots. I suggest you grab a coffee and settle into your comfiest chair.

Much of the recent discussion has been around classification, so let’s start with that and weave some of the other aspects in. One advantage of having been around Para Athletics for so many years, is it gives the ability to take a longer view and perhaps a more objective perspective of the many changes that have taken place. Whatever your perspective, there is a fundamental question that needs to be addressed. Does the current classification system serve the athletes and the sport to the level both require and deserve? With the possible exception of the IPC, I think you would be hard pressed to find many who would answer yes. And yet, while not ideal, we should accept that this is an almost unavoidable position due to the fact that the sport is still evolving. This position only becomes truly negative when the issue of classification is allowed to be hijacked for self-serving means to make a point, further a cause, or reduced to an overly simplistic binary argument where one side is right and the other wrong.

Having grown up on the Olympic side of the fence, when I hopped over into the fun land of Para Athletics, the thing I disliked most was the apparent inability of people to accept getting beaten. I initially put this down to my lack of understanding as a newbie. So many times when an athlete got beaten, the same cry would be heard; “That athlete’s in the wrong class!” While it sometimes came from the athletes, it was louder and often more frequently from parents and coaches.

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Until relatively recently, any country could protest any athlete, so the IPC were never short of protests from countries who could feel their grip on a medal being loosened by a new competitor. In order to back up their protests, it was common practice for coaches/staff from one country to shadow athletes from other nations around the warm up area blatantly filming them for signs of non-conformity with the class they had been placed in, in order to get the athlete disqualified or re-classified. This was done with no regard for the individual athlete. On the contrary, it was often done in a manner to implicitly send the message, “We think you’re cheating!” I observed our southern hemisphere friends doing this to the Russian T42 athlete as recently as the 2015 Worlds in Doha. From an athlete welfare point of view, that practice is wrong on so many levels that the IPC needed to do something to quell it.

Was it a step too far to change the process to one where only the Chief Classifier can protest an athlete? Possibly. The truth is that there is almost certainly room for something in between, but whatever the ultimate process it has to be one based on medical and functional evidence plus observation, and not just because “I can’t do what they can do, so they shouldn’t be in my class.” Such whining is partly driven by a very blinkered mentality. I readily admit to being old school. On one hand track and field is wonderfully complex and technical, and on the other it’s beautifully simple. Get in shape, do the right work, and go and compete. Let’s take one look at getting in shape that’s wider than athletics. With improvements in attitudes and laws the UK is comparatively disability friendly. What about athletes in countries where it is not the norm to have access ramps, guide dogs, or accessible transport? What about countries where access to motorised chairs, stair-lifts or even modern prosthetics and helpful gadgets is extremely limited? What do those athletes do?

In order to function they have to find ways to get about, to overcome obstacles, to simply survive. Just doing that every day is training their body, giving them an ‘enhanced’ level of ability/conditioning. If they are sensible and incorporate this ‘advantage’ into their training, they are likely to have additional capabilities compared to better-assisted athletes in their class, giving them an apparent edge. Some years back I remember our middle and long distance VI athletes complaining about a Kenyan T11 (totally blind) athlete because he could see, and their evidence was they had seen him stepping over things without any verbal warning from his guide. Many Kenyan athletes train off-road. It would not be efficient for the guide to be calling “jump” at every hole, branch, or other obstacle. I would therefore expect them to develop a series of signals to warn of obstacles, e.g. elbow contact, pulling the guide rope in certain directions, or hand/finger contact. With sufficient practise, such signals should actually be faster and more accurate than verbal cues. Therefore when viewed from a distance, it is perfectly feasible for a totally blind athlete to be seen to step over an obstacle without being verbally told it is there. It takes effort to understand an athlete’s capabilities. It’s far easier to just whine that “they shouldn’t be in my class!”

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Let’s link this to one of the issues raised around governance. It has been repeatedly said that athletes were threatened with de-selection if they spoke out about classification issues. Clearly I cannot speak for all sports, however can shed some light on this from an athletics perspective, particularly in the run up to and just after 2012, because I was in the room on more than one occasion when what has been described as threats occurred. There were instances of British athletes commenting that other members of the British team were in the wrong class and hence competing with an unfair advantage. The comments were not supported by any medical evidence or facts. They were merely opinions.

I am a firm believer that everyone is allowed their opinion, and to an appropriate degree should be allowed to express it. Everyone’s opinion is perfectly valid. The problem arises when people start to treat their opinions as facts. Some athletes decided it was not enough to share their opinions in closed circles and began putting opinionated and unsubstantiated comments about team members on social media with the result of encouraging others, including those from other nations to join in the negative chatter. If we take this behaviour out of the sporting and classification context, surely this is what is now being labelled as cyber bullying. Taking a swipe at someone knowing they cannot readily defend themselves or because we feel safe from redress, is essentially bullying. If someone you cared about was on the receiving end of such behaviour, would you not expect those in positions of responsibility to take action to stop it? The then Head Coach made it absolutely clear that such behaviour would not be tolerated. If athletes took that as a threat, that’s their prerogative. Personally I saw it as a justified warning, for two reasons. Firstly the ‘bullies’ were leaving themselves wide open to potential legal action, and secondly, such behaviour is in clear breach of the Code of Conduct that every athlete signs up to in order to be part of the World Class Plan or part of any team. It was also made clear that if people had genuine concerns and evidence, they should raise it in the appropriate manner.

LISTEN: Episode 20: Para sport classification with Keith Antoine

So what steps are underway to try to improve matters? I watched the two recent DCMS Select Committee hearings with interest and disappointment in equal measure. Well, the first one was in equal measure, the second was predominantly disappointment. Perhaps I misunderstood the purpose of the hearings. I was under the impression they were investigative in nature, gathering evidence, considering that evidence and then coming to a conclusion. The website describes them as “Asking the questions you want answered.” As someone who asks questions for a living, I have seldom heard such judgemental, poor quality questioning. The pre-conceptions of nearly all of the committee members were easily detectable in their questions. I do appreciate it takes a level of skill to avoid this happening, however the combination of unfiltered bias and lack of knowledge made much of the process appear massively ineffective. I accept my perception may be wide of the mark, however reviewing the videos many questions to agreeable witnesses were relatively weak producing little of substantive quality, whereas questions to other witnesses were at best leading and consequently even less productive. On a couple of occasions the committee appeared almost gleeful with successfully extracting their pre-determined outcome statement from the witness. But to what end?

The grilling of the BPA’s Tim Hollingsworth was eyebrow-raising to say the least. The committee, especially the chair, appeared determined to have him apologise for deficiencies of the classification system and the subsequent impact on some athletes. The questioning showed a bias towards previously heard evidence combined with a lack of understanding. Wanting an apology from Mr Hollingsworth for the failings in the classification system is akin to demanding an apology from the manager of the Bull Ring Shopping Centre because you don’t like Nando’s choice of menu on a Wednesday. (Other shopping centres and restaurant chains are available.) In the same way that the manager of the Bull Ring has responsibility for the centre as a whole rather than the individual outlets, the BPA’s ‘only’ responsibility in this regard is to coordinate and provide the supporting infrastructure every four years for the team that will represent GB & NI at the Paralympic Games.

 

They have little to no input into the governance of the various sports. That responsibility sits with the NGBs (National Governing Bodies) and particularly in the case of classification with the IPC. Mr Hollingsworth attempted to tell them this on several occasions but the information appeared to fall on deaf ears as it was not the desired contrite apology, which would in reality have been little more than a cosmetic gesture. And I am in no way attempting to defend the BPA. To be honest, when they pop onto my radar every four years I can let them irritate me, so we’re not always on first name terms. I readily accept the committee members cannot be experts in Paralympic sport, which surely reinforces the case for them to take on board all submissions and question all witnesses before coming to any conclusions.

Re-watch the sessions yourself, especially the last one, and you will easily spot any number of questions that are emotive, subjective or opinionated because the committee member already had a well-formed rigid opinion. A glaring example was the Chair’s questioning of Peter Eriksson about Ian Jones, clearly inferring that Ian was reclassified from a T44 to T38 by the team for the benefit of the team. This inference highlighted the lack of understanding and was borderline hilarious for three reasons. Firstly, such a re-classification at best might have gained a bronze medal but would probably have resulted in a fifth place. Secondly, sourcing the medical evidence plus the repercussions of such an unethical move would not have been worth the effort and risk for any potential returns. And thirdly, T44 is for single leg below knee amputees, and Ian’s condition is an equivalent one. He did not have an amputation but his condition results in no/limited control over the ankle joint, hence being equivalent to having no ankle. Any challenge to Ian’s classification most likely came from an opposing team who would not have understood why an athlete with two feet should be competing as a T44 against their athlete who would have had to learn to run with a prosthetic. None of this seemed to be understood by the Chair who really seemed to have his heart set on an admission of guilt, and was at times clearly aggrieved not to get one.

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Obviously this is only my humble opinion based on what I observed. I guess the Committee’s choice to respond or ignore the above will shed light on how close to the truth my comments may be. Either way, if that quality of questioning is supposed to inform the pathway to the promised land, as imperfect as the current situation is, I think we’d be better off staying where we are.

But in all seriousness, I do not believe anyone would advocate sticking with the status quo. So how do we find a way forward? Usually, finding a way forward requires an understanding of where you are starting from. Surely this is what the DCMS hearings should have uncovered. While not particularly effectively done, many of the areas they did cover are relevant. There does need to be better governance. Whistle-blowing, grievance and reporting processes could and should be clearer. The classification system definitely does need to be enhanced, however I do not believe that a significant number of athletes are trying to cheat the system. Human nature combined with the increased profile and potential rewards suggests that a small percentage of athletes, coaches or officials will be tempted to be naughty, and so the systems and processes need to be robust enough to deter, detect and punish anyone that succumbs to the temptation. I believe that for any future solution to be viable, a few additional chunky issues need to be considered, and I accept my take on them may not be a popular one.

During the last DCMS hearing, much significance was placed on an athlete giving their medal back because they were so disenchanted with the classification system, feeling it no longer supports a level playing field, resulting in having to compete against athletes who have an unfair advantage. I have known, and liked, this athlete for many years, so I stress the following is not personal, however with this example being put into the public domain it presents a very good opportunity to take a detached and objective view of the cold stats (which anyone can check and verify) and also highlight two of the biggest challenges that many Para athletes, their coaches and parents need to come to terms with. Much of the evidence in this case for unfairness seems to be centred on an athlete whose classification is complex, and has since been changed, however focusing on one athlete in particular contributes to missing the key point.

The disenchanted athlete was World Champion over 400m in 2011 with a time of 69.21s. A time they improved by around 2 seconds over the next 3 years. Even including the complex athlete, the current queen of T35-38 one lap running, Ms Georgie Hermitage, gets around the track in 60s. This is superior by a country mile. Well, to be more accurate it’s superior by about half the finishing straight and there is absolutely no suggestion that Ms hermitage is in the wrong class. What makes this even more remarkable is that her range of movement is arguably more limited than the previous athlete. So what accounts for the huge performance difference? It has absolutely nothing to do with disability and everything to do with basic athletics principles. Ms Hermitage is better coached, is in far better condition, is significantly stronger, and has the required robust attitude towards the work required to run 400m effectively. Look at her for yourself. If you can spot an athlete in that class, (or almost any other class for that matter) who is in better shape then please let me know. On one level, success in Track & Field, whether Olympic or Paralympic is not complicated.

 

As I said earlier, get in shape, do the right work, then come out and compete. Obviously, there are additional considerations with Para athletes, but this simple principle remains true, and too many athletes are not sufficiently conditioned to properly meet the demands of their events. Ms Hermitage runs far faster than any other 400m athlete in those classes because she is far better mentally and physically conditioned than any other athlete in those classes. Is the current classification system perfect? Of course not, but the reason for athletes no longer being competitive has absolutely nothing to do with the classification system. The Chinese athlete is 30 metres superior to the previous record holder. Are we saying she is also in the wrong class? The Tunisian athlete is also 30 metres superior. Please! Is she also in the wrong class? The second Chinese athlete and the French athlete are 15 – 20 metres superior. Just how far down the list do we need to go before realising this comes down to the ability to train and race effectively? Blaming it all on the classification system is simply not viable.

For all the complaints about incorrect classification, this principle is further backed up in the T/F38 long jump event. In Rio 2016, our very own Ms Breen jumped an uncompetitive 3.99m. Even at her best, she would have placed eighth or ninth. Since Rio, she has focused more on the long jump than the sprints, changed training base, changed coach and is training more effectively. In 2017 she not only improved her personal best by half a metre to 4.81m, she also won gold at the World Para Athletics Championships. An absolutely fantastic result, and I really look forward to seeing her performances continue to improve and break through the five metre barrier. The irony is that if you were to put the 2017 version of Ms Breen beside the version I first met in 2011/12 who struggled to jump 4m, the difference would be stark. So stark, it might be hard to believe they should be in the same class. Her balance is better, her coordination is better, her strength and conditioning is significantly better, and they have all improved through her choices and her very own hard work.

Had the 2017 version turned up in 2012, I wonder how many of the other athletes and their parents would be complaining that she shouldn’t be in that class. As better athletes come into the sport, and team up with world class coaches, they are going to push the boundaries of what is thought to capable within many of the classes. Athletes and coaches are not attempting to train out the disability, however they are working hard to minimise the impact of the athlete’s impairment on their ability to execute the ideal technical model. When this is done correctly, especially in the neurological condition classes, the differences can be quite significant. This presents a huge challenge for the IPC in general and the classifiers in particular. Classification methodology and processes have to continue to evolve to keep pace with the sport. They are changing but not fast enough or in the right way.

For some of the classes, particularly neurological and VI, it might be worth considering having classifiers turning up unannounced to training sessions, in much the same way as anti-doping does. If athletes are trying to cheat the system, observing them in their home surroundings while training would be quite revealing.

 

Para athletics is still developing. Sydney 2000 accelerated this development, London 2012 took it to another level, and it shows no signs of slowing down. While it may sound controversial, something that has to be recognised is that unlike on the Olympic side of the fence, winning medals at the Paralympics or World Champs does not necessarily make an athlete world class. To avoid the risk of seeming to detract from the achievements of any athlete, I will use my current to make this point. In 2015 Richard Whitehead won 200m gold at the World Para Athletics Champs in Doha in a new world record time of 24.10s. This was regarded by the majority of people as an example of world class performance. Despite all the plaudits, analysing Richard’s performance of 24.10s from a sprinting perspective rather than a Para Athletics perspective, we both realised the run in Doha was a nice win but absolutely not one to get carried away with.

The following season at the Anniversary Games, Ntando Mahlangu from South Africa, a relatively untrained 14 year old young man who was new to running on blades ran 23.97s. So with hindsight, how world class was 24.10s? Despite 24.10s winning and being a world record, Ntando proved that Richard’s run in Doha was not world class. Not even close. With all due respect, it was simply good enough to beat the opposition present on that day. I am pleased he has since reduced this record to 23.01s which is closer to where it should be, but even that level of performance will not stand a chance of sniffing the gold medal in Tokyo 2020.

There are far too many coaches, parents, and athletes themselves believing they are world class just because they have made it onto the podium. If we do not do the proper analysis and identify what a true world class performance looks like, we are going to get caught out very quickly, which is precisely what has happened to some of the athletes now complaining about the classification system. With the increased profile, more athletes are coming into the sport. And higher calibre athletics specific coaches, many of whom would not have previously touched a Para athlete with a proverbial barge pole, are now willing to get involved. It still has some way to go however Para Athletics is becoming true performance sport, and that is what is bringing some of the challenges, particularly in the area of classification.

As the body primarily responsible for governance of the sport, the IPC have not covered themselves in glory with their responses to many of these challenges, especially those of classification. The new MASH (Maximum Allowable Standing Height) protocols are a case in point. MASH regulates the blade length of the double leg amputees. Something that is absolutely necessary. For example, I am a vertically challenged 5’ 6”. Should I lose my legs and decide to try out for the team, it would be ridiculous for me to turn up on a pair of blades that have me standing at 6’ 2”. Last year the IPC updated the MASH formula, and it was clearly not fit for purpose. Knowing many team coaches from other countries, I am aware several athletes had conversations along the following lines. Obviously I am paraphrasing with extreme license:

IPC: “Your revised maximum height will be 5’ 8” according to the new MASH guidelines.”

Athlete: “That can’t be right. My current standing height is 5’ 10”.”

IPC: “No, we’ve checked at you come out at 5’ 8”.”

Athlete: “But my medical and military records prove that I stood at 5’ 10” before I lost my legs.”

IPC: “Sorry! Our new formula is awesome. You will compete at 5’ 8”.”

What makes this even worse is that an athlete standing at 5’ 10”, when in sprinting mode on the ball of their feet will increase in height to around 6’ tall.

 

Are the systems and structures of the sport keeping pace with the developments? Currently the answer would have to be no. And that is a question for the IPC to answer. To effectively govern this sport requires an understanding of performance athletics and elite sport. When the IPC display the level of decision making around the MASH guidelines, they go a long way to proving that the second floodlight down the back straight at Alexander Stadium has a better grasp of elite athletics than they do. Here is the crux of the issue. Whether intended or unintended, this sport has grown beyond a vehicle for participation, and is moving to fully evolve into elite competitive sport. On that journey it appears to already be outgrowing those that are supposed to be governing it. The issues around classification, participation, governance and everything else can only be successfully resolved once the sport makes up its mind about where it is going. The sport and many of the athletes are heading towards elite. It’s hard to tell where the IPC are heading, but all the evidence suggests it is not in the same direction.

The need for the IPC to decide whether their primary focus is participation or elite sport also has implications for the competition programme. The two prongs are not mutually exclusive, however at Paralympic level the time is rapidly approaching where one focus needs to lead. Again, I will go back to the example of the young South African T42 sprinter, Ntando Mahlangu who has to be one of the brightest rising stars of the entire track programme. The IPC have decided to split the current Men’s T42 class into 3 separate classes. To me their decision making seems flawed, based on individual concerns and does not stand strong scrutiny, however it is what it is.

There are at least two impacts of the decision to split this class. The first impact is that from a spectators’ point of view, it removes a dramatic and exiting head to head race from the programme; the current Men’s T42 100m. The double above-knee amputee men only had two track events in the entire programme, and now they are down to one. This season I was overjoyed to see Ntando break the 100m world record. This was particularly pleasing because the double-leg guys should stand no chance in the shorter sprint. The fact that the single leg guys can’t get their act together is a poor basis to penalise the above knee sprinters. So a great race is removed from the programme. The second impact concerns what will be the new T61 class in which Ntando will compete. There is a good chance that up to 70% of this class will retire after Tokyo leaving Ntando competing virtually on his own, which in turn makes the class unviable and therefore a likely candidate to be removed from the programme. One of the brightest prospects on the track could be forced from athletics before his 20th birthday. How is that showing foresight? In what way does that level of thinking enhance or develop the sport of Para Athletics?

So, what happens when a sport overtakes those responsible for governing it? Unless the IPC fundamentally change their thinking, set a clear direction, and do it quickly, I fear we may be about to find out.

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