Paralympics: ‘Faking disability is no different to doping’

BBC investigation uncovers allegations that athletes are gaming Paralympic classifications

Brittany Woodward
Bethany Woodward quit Team GB on the eve of the Rio Paralympics
(Image credit: Tom Dulat/Getty Images)

Paralympic sport is under the spotlight again after a BBC investigation uncovered “dirty tactics” used to cheat the classification system.

Last year the start of the Rio Paralympic Games was overshadowed by a row over classifications, with claims that some athletes lied about their disabilities in order to increase their medal chances.

Now, a BBC File on 4 special - Paralympic Sport - Fair Play? - has again asked whether the system is fit for purpose.

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After speaking to athletes, parents, coaches and classifiers, the BBC found that tactics such as “taping up of arms, taking cold showers in trunks and surgery to shorten limbs” were used to cheat the system.

It says International Paralympic Committee (IPC) lawyers are investigating whether athletes or coaches have “deliberately exaggerated disability to boost their chance of winning”.

One athlete who spoke to the BBC about her concerns is Bethany Woodward, the British T37 200m sprinter. She won a silver medal at the London Paralympics in 2012 but quit before the Rio games in 2016. At the time she told The Sunday Times she “no longer believed in Team GB because more able-bodied athletes were being put into the same categories as more seriously disabled athletes”.

Woodward revealed that she is giving back her medal because she had lost faith in the team selection process. “In London 2012 there was no-one in my classification I thought shouldn’t be there... but then suddenly classes seemed to be opening up,” Woodward told the BBC. “It was like a snowball of lots of people coming in and no way of saying: ‘Hold on, is this right?’”

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Woodward said that on another occasion in the past four years the team had an “unfair advantage” because of the inclusion of one of her team-mates.

“[I was] heartbroken,” Woodward added. “I feel like we won a medal I don’t believe was true. I don’t want this medal any more... I can step away with a clear conscience.

“It’s not about world records, gold medals. Paralympic sport is about disabled people pushing themselves and overcoming their diversity. Handing back this medal will mean all the medals I won are to do with me, my cerebral palsy and my strength.”

Hand cyclist Liz McTernan does not believe everyone is “ethical” and that faking disability is no different to doping.

McTernan told the BBC: “I think people need to have their bubble burst actually. Because we’re not all inspiring, we’re not all ethical.

“There are people out there who only care about getting their funding from the national governing body and getting a gold medal around their neck.

“If I had a gold medal from faking it or being the least impaired person in my category, I wouldn’t feel like it was worthwhile. It’s akin to doping.”

Paralympic Sport - Fair Play? airs tonight at 8pm on BBC Radio 4

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