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Wheelchair athlete in a race
Credit: Seth Kane/Unsplash

Preserving the integrity of Paralympic sport is one of the key concerns of athletes taking part, and a project to understand ways to tackle para-sport doping heard from international athletes about their experiences and concerns.

The findings from the multi-agency Research-Embedded Strategic Plan for anti-doping Education: Clean sport alliance initiative for Tackling doping in Para-sport (RESPECT-P) project suggest a need for major policy revisions within Paralympic sport, including fixing issues with the classification system.

Findings from this Erasmus+ funded project were recently presented and discussed at the 3rd Clean Sport Insight Forum at the University of Birmingham, hosted by UK Anti-Doping (UKAD).

Through interviews with international para-athletes and athlete support personnel from six European countries, the project has identified significant threats to the integrity of ParaSport. During the forum, a panel of para-athletes including British powerlifter Ali Jawad, Dutch swimmer Liesette Bruinsma, and British wheelchair basketball and rugby player Gemma Lumsdaine discussed this issue, describing how the research findings resonated with their own experiences in para-sport.

Foremost amongst these threats are issues with the classification system, which determines the specific category that a particular para-athlete can compete within. Although this system aims to ensure only athletes with similar levels of impairment compete against each other, the RESPECT-P project has discovered significant potential for the system to be abused. Specifically, athletes can intentionally misrepresent the degree or nature of their impairment to allow them to compete against athletes with greater levels of impairment and gain a performance advantage.

Other threats to the integrity of para-sport identified through the project include misuse of the Therapeutic Use Exemption system to allow sanctioned use of prohibited substances, manipulation of equipment to gain an unfair advantage, and intentional induction of autonomic dysreflexia with the aim of enhancing performance (aka “boosting”) through stimulation of the autonomic nervous system (e.g., increased heart rate and blood pressure).

To protect Clean Para-Sport, we need to find suitable solutions for all relevant integrity issues, which include – but are not restricted to – doping.

Dr Ian Boardley, Reader in Sport and Exercise Psychology

Implementing effective policies

During the forum, an expert panel including Professor Andrea Petroczi, Dr Tom Nightingale, and Ali Jawad discussed the significant challenges to implementing effective policies to address these threats to the integrity of para-sport. Although there are significant challenges, there was general consensus that we shouldn’t shy away from difficult problems, and that researchers, practitioners, policy makers, and athletes should work together to find suitable solutions.

Another issue that was discussed during the forum was the lack of evidence relating to the prevalence of these integrity issues. It is likely that some sports and/or impairments are more susceptible to each specific issue, but the lack of robust prevalence data makes it difficult to understand which one poses the greatest threat and therefore where to focus research attention and funding. Thus, speakers throughout the day called for more research into prevalence of these integrity issues within ParaSport and more funding to look at these complex issues in detail.

A further discussion point throughout the day was how athletes define the term “Clean Sport”. Although this term is often connected with anti-doping and drug-free sport, it is evident both from the project findings and discussions during the forum that athletes view Clean Sport as more than doping-free sport. Specifically, they view it as being synonymous with high levels of integrity across the board, and therefore more representative of cheating-free sport. Thus, to protect Clean Para-Sport, we need to find suitable solutions for all relevant integrity issues, which include – but are not restricted to – doping.

The 4th Clean Sport Insight Forum will take place on 22nd November 2022 in Muenster, Germany and will discuss system perspectives and the future directions. Registration will open soon.