Paralympics risks subverting Guttman’s founding vision
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