One of the toughest things about competitive parasport is classification. For the “less obvious” conditions it is hard to get it right. And even for the obvious conditions it becomes the sharp end of the stick when it comes to qualifying for World Championships and Paralympics.
I am going to stick my neck out a bit – I think that in triathlon our focus has been in the wrong place.
I will preface this by saying that my views may be coloured in that I am not aiming to compete at the Paralympics. I admit it – when I first heard about paratriathlon, I harboured an ambition of competing at the London 2013 World Championships. But as I spent more time in the sport, I learned a few things – mostly about myself, but also about the system.
I learned that although I am motivated to be my best me when I do sport, and although I love to push myself, I am not driven to compete at the highest level. Triathlon is my hobby – it is how I manage my health. I’ve always channeled my drive and ambition to my professional life, with sport being a way that I regained health. Sport has been something I do in my free time, something which adds to my life but which is not my sole focus. With the choices I have made, triathlon will never get the attention it would require for me to be able to compete at the highest level. And, as someone who came to sport late in life, I do not hesitate to say that I am NOT a natural athlete. But being active HAS helped me to radically improve my quality of life, and to manage two chronic health conditions. I have absolute conviction in my belief that I am NOT unique – that sport and fitness will benefit EVERYONE but especially those of us living with physical challenges.
Next, I learned that the system of classification BY DEFINITION needs to be EXCLUSIVE. In parasport, you need to take athletes from around the world, screen them, compare them, and then whittle down the field to send a top flight sample of the best to the highest levels of international competition. In parasport, you define a criteria to see if athletes are impaired enough, and you are either in or out compared to that criteria. If you meet the criteria, you then need to perform, you need to be ELITE compared with your peers in order to COMPETE on the international stage – and rightly so! I mean, from the ENTIRE WORLD there will be only 60 paratriathletes (30 men, 30 women, from all impairments) eligible for Rio. These need to be the best athletes that sport has to offer. And the numbers able to participate are SO LOW. So we need an exclusive system – selectivity is key.
When Paratriathlon was accepted to be included in the 2016 Rio Paralympic games, one of the conditions was that the International Triathlon Union would need to redesign the classification criteria. So since the start of 2012, the ITU has been working to redesign the criteria for participation in the elite level of sport.
The new criteria were released earlier this week. (see page 56 if you are interested in the new paratriathlon criteria)
I have not seen the classification manual, nor have I been scheduled yet to undergo classification in the new system (I have requested to be classified at the USA Paratriathlon National Championships in Austin in May, but I am not sure if I will be classed as I am currently an athlete out of classification, losing my status in 2012). So I can’t comment (yet) as to whether or not my concerns that the system was not assessing athletes with neurological impairments correctly have been addressed.
But what I can say is that there is an awful lot of attention being paid to how 60 athletes will be selected for the Paralympics. Fair enough.
BUT (again, in my opinion) not nearly enough attention is being paid to how to increase grassroots participation in paratriathlon. With all the fuss that the international governing body and national governing bodies are paying to Rio and how to find the best athletes to represent triathlon and the nations – there has been woeful (public?) thought being given on how to expand the base of our sport so that all athletes of all levels are able to participate amongst their peers.
In some ways it is like the ITU put the cart before the horse. It seems to me that the goal the Paralympics has superceded the common sense step to get a strong athlete field and programme in place in each national federation to generate participation, inclusiveness, and interest in paratriathlon.
THIS is why I have been so vocal in supporting USA Triathlon and what they are seeking to do for our sport. In the US the Open Physically Challenged wave at triathlon is now an official part of the rule books. I was recently interviewed by USA Triathlon about the Open PC system.
A screenshot of my USAT interview!
Open PC is a way for athletes who have impairments to participate – regardless of whether or not they have been officially classified, regardless of whether or not their impairments meet the strict ITU rulebook which is designed to be exclusive. Open PC is a way for race directors to more easily embrace paratriathletes with distinct waves, thus increasing the number and quality of events available. The US has taken steps to create an open and inclusive system to develop the grassroots of our sport.
At all high profile paratriathlon events in the US there will be an Open Physically Challenged wave. I wish that all national federations would create an open wave alongside their classified paratriathlete waves – but sadly this is not the case. So I will be taking my racing to the US this year. With the inclusive system being adopted in the US, I can go to Austin and Chicago and be a part of the parasport community. Be a part of it, but without the pressure of competing at the highest level – I can compete alongside my peers in what is my hobby, doing what I love, in an open inclusive environment, welcomed by the governing body of our sport. And I won’t face the requirement to meet impairment standards defined by tests that previously (in my opinion) were deficient in assessing neurological impairments, which led me to feel intensely frustrated and angry with a system that I perceived was not supportive of athletes.
Sure, I have pushed to get the classification criteria right, to improve the future chances for athletes with neurological conditions like CMT to compete at the highest level. I worked with my neurophysiotherapist and our ITU paratriathlete representative to put forth a paper expressing considerations for the classification of neurological conditions. But with time I increasingly felt that my focus (and that of the ITU, most athletes, and many national federations) was misplaced.
I believe parasport has to be about creating the opportunity for EVERYONE to be a part, to create the chance to cross the finish line with your peers. This is what it is about for me anyway – getting people into sport to improve their quality of life, and making sure that avenues exist to do so. You don’t need classification to do this – you need support from the governing bodies to the race directors and athletes alike, and an alternative to the exclusive classification system of the ITU.
One that note, I hope to see you at a race in the US this year. My first Open PC race will be at the Egg Hunt Triathlon in Pembroke Pines Florida on 19 April.