News Analysis: Paralympics Classification Must Change

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Victoria Arlen

Paralympic swimming champion Victoria Arlen was disqualified from competition recently by the International Paralympic Committee after the IPC determined her disability was temporary. The August decision has raised eyebrows and called into question how the IPC certifies athletes as eligible.

The IPC uses a sport-specific classification system to ensure equitable competition. A panel assesses athletes’ eligibility by examining criteria such as range of motion and limb deficiency. Those ruled eligible in a particular sport are grouped into classes according to degree of limitation resulting from their impairment.

Arlen, 18, who has transverse myelitis, was first classified in 2011, but the IPC became suspicious after a video seemed to show Arlen pushing off the wall during a competition. She was ruled ineligible before the London Paralympics, but the decision was overturned on appeal. After London, the IPC requested an in-depth report on Arlen’s impairment from the United States Olympic Committee.

According to Craig Spence, IPC communications and media director, the report was sent to five independent medical experts with Arlen’s name removed. The report contradicted the previous diagnosis submitted by the USOC and Arlen. Requests for clarification from Arlen’s doctor yielded little. “When he replied to us, he was silent on most of the inconsistencies,” Spence says.

All five experts ruled Arlen ineligible. “The IPC takes absolutely no pleasure in this decision on Victoria because she’s trained for years to be one of the best swimmers in the world,” says Spence. “However, our rules are pretty consistent that in our view you have to have a permanent impairment.”

Former Paralympian Linda Mastandrea, who sits on the IPC Legal Committee, says it may be time for the entire classification system to be reexamined because medical advances may muddy the water between permanent and temporary disability. “I think it’s going to have to change the system because the nature of people’s impairments or disabilities will change, and the nature of the technology used will change,” she says.

The future is uncertain, but Mastandrea believes the current system is the best the IPC has devised. “It’s an imperfect system created by people who are trying their best to create something fair and equitable. Unfortunately these situations [like Arlen’s] are sometimes going to result,” she says.

A review of the current classification system is important if the Paralympics are to continue to balance inclusion with equitable competition.

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