Par­a­lympics risks sub­vert­ing Guttman’s found­ing vi­sion

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport - Oliver Brown Chief Sports Writer

That Ge­orge Bates is even con­tem­plat­ing hav­ing his left leg am­pu­tated to com­pete in the Par­a­lympics is an in­dict­ment of how warped the Games’ clas­si­fi­ca­tion sys­tem has be­come. While ath­letes have some­times re­sorted to ex­tremes to im­prove per­for­mance, with one Cana­dian quad­ri­plegic elec­tro­cut­ing his nether re­gions to el­e­vate his heart rate, Bates is pre­pared to in­flict even more dras­tic mea­sures on his body to qual­ify for the Bri­tish wheel­chair bas­ket­ball team in Tokyo next sum­mer. Should le­gal ap­peals against his in­el­i­gi­bil­ity fall on stony ground, los­ing a limb, he says, could be the only re­course he has left.

It is one of those as­ton­ish­ing ad­mis­sions, first made in Jeremy Wil­son’s Tele­graph in­ter­view with the 26-year-old this week, that should make the In­ter­na­tional Par­a­lympic Com­mit­tee stop dead in its tracks. For a start, it high­lights the in­con­sis­tency of the de­ci­sion to ex­clude him from tak­ing part, given that Bates has al­ready won world and Euro­pean medals for his coun­try. But the fact that the IPC is leav­ing him with such an un­think­able choice – re­lin­quish his dream or cut off a leg – is the stark­est sign yet of how far the Par­a­lympics have been wrenched from their ide­al­is­tic moor­ings.

In 1948, when Dr Lud­wig Guttmann launched the Stoke Man­dev­ille Games in the grounds of the hospi­tal whose spinal in­juries unit he ran, he said: “I dream of the day when there will be Olympic Games for peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties.” That vi­sion has been ac­com­plished on a scale he could never have en­vis­aged, but not always in the ways he in­tended. As his daugh­ter, Eva Lo­ef­fler, would later ob­serve: “Although not a sports­man him­self, he re­alised how im­por­tant sport was in giv­ing his pa­tients an in­ter­est in life and in ac­cept­ing them in so­ci­ety.”

This, in essence, was where his grand con­cept be­gan and ended. It did not in­volve end­less cav­ils over dis­abil­ity cat­e­gories, or the grisly phe­nom­e­non of “boost­ing”, where ath­letes with se­vere spinal cord in­juries have been known to heighten their adrenalin lev­els by tight­en­ing a leg strap or break­ing a big toe. Part of the prob­lem, of course, is that the mod­ern Par­a­lympics are big busi­ness, tempt­ing par­tic­i­pants into ever mud­dier wa­ters in pur­suit of an edge. But the Bates case pro­pels them into their dark­est ter­ri­tory yet. For a young man to be so des­per­ate to sat­isfy the rule-mak­ers that he de­scribes am­pu­ta­tion as a “se­ri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion” marks a hor­ri­fy­ing sub­ver­sion of Guttmann’s orig­i­nal ethos.

What re­curs in Bates’s ex­pe­ri­ence is the power of the Par­a­lympics in giv­ing his life pur­pose. He was 13 when di­ag­nosed with com­plex re­gional pain syn­drome, a mus­cle-wast­ing con­di­tion that has left him un­able to walk since, and yet a Par­a­lympic medal has re­mained his abid­ing quest. Alas, the IPC’s rul­ing, and there is no way of putting this del­i­cately, is that he is not dis­abled enough. By its model, Bates scores a 4.5, the min­i­mum thresh­old for im­pair­ment, but to­day finds him­self re­clas­si­fied to the point where he no longer has a place at all.

There is a hard­line re­sponse to this: so what? The line has to be drawn some­where. Trou­ble is, it is al­most im­pos­si­ble to de­ter­mine, either morally or phys­i­o­log­i­cally, where such a line should fall. Some­times, rules vi­o­la­tions are self-ev­i­dent, as when sev­eral Span­ish bas­ket­ball play­ers faked in­tel­lec­tual dis­abil­ity to win gold medals at the 2000 Syd­ney Par­a­lympics. Bates’s dis­abil­ity, though, is no mere mat­ter of per­cep­tion. He is reg­is­tered dis­abled and suf­fers not just move­ment re­stric­tions but con­stant pain. And yet by strict IPC cri­te­ria, he is not recog­nised as hav­ing an un­der­ly­ing con­di­tion or the req­ui­site de­gree of im­pair­ment.

Philip Pratt, Bates’s cap­tain in the Bri­tish team, makes a telling point when he ar­gues that his team-mate is be­ing dis­crim­i­nated against for not con­form­ing to a set view about what it means to be dis­abled in 2020.

Dis­abil­ity is so var­ie­gated that at the Par­a­lympics fierce dis­putes can be trig­gered even within the same event about one ath­lete not be­ing as se­verely im­paired as an­other.

Sel­dom was this more vividly shown than at Lon­don 2012, when the IPC worked it­self into a dread­ful bind on what to do with Vic­to­ria Arlen, El­lie Sim­monds’s chief ri­val in the S6 400me­tres. When she ar­rived at the Par­a­lympics, Arlen was deemed in­suf­fi­ciently im­paired to be an S6 swim­mer and down­graded to an S7, even though a virus at­tack­ing her spine had left her in a veg­e­ta­tive state for two years. Come the day of the 400m fi­nal, she was back up to S6 again. Two cat­e­gory ad­just­ments in the space of one com­pe­ti­tion: that is how quickly the spec­trum of dis­abil­ity can dis­solve into shades of grey, lend­ing it­self less to med­i­cal cer­tainty than sub­jec­tive judg­ment.

Par­a­lympic swim­ming is rigidly strat­i­fied, with 15 cat­e­gories and a dizzy­ing 147 events. But if you imag­ined that to be a sure-fire equaliser of com­pe­ti­tion, you would be mis­taken. Sim­monds, born with achon­dropla­sia, a form of dwarfism, won her 400m gold in Lon­don at the ex­pense of Arlen, paral­ysed from the waist down. Is that truly a like-ver­sus-like duel? If not, then what type of con­test are we watch­ing?

It is an in­sol­u­ble co­nun­drum. All the IPC can do is en­sure that ath­letes are placed in the most ap­pro­pri­ate groups to com­pete. It is a process it has sought to sim­plify in re­cent years, but in its ex­clu­sion of Bates, it has tipped the bal­ance be­tween sim­plic­ity and fair­ness the wrong way.

Bates’s con­di­tion is of a sever­ity and per­ma­nence that mer­its his in­volve­ment in Tokyo, and the IPC should re­store his clas­si­fi­ca­tion with­out de­lay. Ul­ti­mately, that will be a far eas­ier eth­i­cal cir­cle to square than re­quir­ing him to lose a leg.

Con­fu­sion: Amer­i­can swim­mer Vic­to­ria Arlen had two cat­e­gory changes at Lon­don 2012

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