Bethany Woodward

Bethany Woodward is a silver medalist in the 200 Meters (T37) sprint at the 2012 London Paralympics. She continued her career as a para-athlete, but has become disillusioned about the state of para-athletic competition. The Ringwood, England native made news recently for returning a silver medal won in a competition several years ago, not because she cheated, but because a person on her relay team was not disabled enough.

In this fascinating audio report from the BBC, entitled Paralympic Sport – Fair Play?, Woodward was interviewed regarding the growing issue of “classification cheating.”

The reporter explained that Woodward is classified as a T-37 sprinter. “T” stands for “track,” while 37 is a degree of disability. The lower the number, the greater the impairment. The purpose of the classification system is to create an equal playing field for the competitors. But either because of the challenge of classifying disabilities or purposely interpreting the criteria for a certain classification broadly, athletes can see inequities.

Reporter: Volunteers classify athletes based on how their disability impacts their performance, not on the disability itself. They look at the medical paperwork and the doctor or the physiotherapist does tests. Then a technical classifier, a sports scientist or a coach, for example, will assess the athlete. They’re also watched in competition before their classification is confirmed. Bethany Woodward said after the 2012 Paralympics, the make-up of her class seemed to change.

Woodward: In London there was no one in my classification I thought shouldn’t be there. But then suddenly classes were seemed to be opening up. I have hardly any dorsiflexion in it, or none. And within the criteria for cerebral palsy it said that you shouldn’t have any dorsiflexion . And then there was people coming who had dorsiflexion and I could see that when they were warming up.

Reporter: In other words, they could bend their foot.

Woodward: Yeah, they could bend their foot. So there were physical elements you could see that they were definitely a lot stronger in different areas than you. My cerebral palsy isn’t something that will fluctuate at all. And then you have people coming in who have a medical condition that really fluctuates. One day they could be absolutely fine and one day they are not OK. And we can’t ask for medical evidence because that is something deemed confidential.

When asked why she returned her medal, Woodward explained that nothing has changed since she first raised the issues. “Nothing has changed in a year. There was nothing I could do to fix it, but I can make I can step away with a clear conscience, a voice. In handing that medal back really closes the book for me – I did everything I could for this sport.”

Olivia Breen
Olivia Breen

Olivia Breen is a long jumping champion who has cerebral palsy and learning difficulties, and who went to Rio and made it to the finals of the T-38 100-meter finals. According to her father, Michael Breen, one of Olivia’s competitors had relapsing MS, which he felt was unfair when compared to athletes with cerebral palsy like his daughter, because their condition could be in remission at the time of the race, or controlled by drugs. He also claimed that another finalist objected to being classified at all.

What followed in the report was an insightful exchange that speak to the challenges of differentiating subtle differences in conditions.

Reporter: I’ve read interviews with athletes whose impairments have been questioned before an d they say, frankly it’s insulting for people to say that about me. They don’t know my medical history so you don’t know for sure what is or isn’t affection that particular athlete’s performance.

Michael Breen: That’s a really good point. I’m not going to try to justify every person who’s queried someone’s disability because it’s not possible. What I’m saying is, there is something fundamentally wrong with classification. It’s not fit for purpose and it’s broken.

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Winners of the first FINA 4x100 mixed medley relay- Great Britain
Winners of the first FINA 4×100 mixed medley relay- Great Britain

In the history of the Olympics, both Summer and Winter versions, athletes who have compiled the highest medal hauls over their Olympic careers tend to be gymnasts and swimmers. In fact, of the top 20 greatest career medal recipients, seven are swimmers, including the all-time record holder, Michael Phelps, and his 28 total medals.

It just got a little easier for swimmers to add even more medals.

On June 9, 2017, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced the addition of another 15 events for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, including the men’s 800-meter freestyle, the women’s 1500-meter freestyle, and the intriguing 4×100 mixed medley relay, in which 2 men and 2 women form a single team and swim the butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle in succession.

Phelps reacted strongly when he heard the news, stating that the additional swimming events would “(take) away from the sport,” according to this NBC Sports article.

What else are we going to add? Are we going to do, like, 75m frees? How many other events are we going to add? When you add something like an 800m for men and a 1500m for women, and you’re adding mixed relays and 50s of strokes. I don’t want to say it, but it seems like there’s too much going on. It seems like, so then we’re going to grow the team by a handful of other people? I don’t like it. I don’t think it’s what swimming has been through all of this time, and hopefully we don’t have it for too long, but it’s not in my power. I can’t really do anything. I’ll just sit and watch.

It’s a bit of a ramble from Phelps, but it’s clear he’s unhappy. One could speculate that the IOC made it easier for some young swimmer to have more chances to earn medals, and perhaps one day, overtake Phelps’ 28 medals.

On the other hand, British gold medalist in the 100-meter breaststroke, Adam Peaty, expressed dissatisfaction with the fact that the IOC didn’t add even more swimming events as he thought that people wanted to see more sprints, for example, 50-meter races in the breaststroke, backstroke and butterfly. Perhaps more accurately, Peaty believes that the emphasis should have been on speed over distance, as he said in this BBC article.

Sprints engage people more than distance events. I don’t like that there’s another distance event and I don’t think that’s what’s needed. I’m a bit disappointed. Maybe they could have both just done a 1500m and then done away with the 800m. You can’t please everyone and I know I’m a sprinter but they’re the races I always remember growing up watching the Olympics.

robbie-brightwell-in-white-city-from-his-autobiography
Robbie Brightwell, from his autobiography

The headline read “Olympic Team Revolts”.

With only two weeks to go before the start of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the London press was saying that the Great Britain Athletics team was insubordinate over television fees, and that their captain, Robbie Brightwell was leading the insurrection.

The BBC was doing a pre-Olympics show with the hopes of interviewing members of Team GB before they took off for Tokyo. Appearing on television or radio often resulted in payments to the athletes. In order to protect their amateur status, very often a third of these fees were, based upon an agreement with the media, would go to the charity of their choosing (after two thirds were deducted for administrative and tax purposes). Those in track and field commonly sent their fees to the International Athletics Club (IAC), who organized training fees and helped absorb parts of their participation fees in meets, for example.

To the surprise of the athletes, they learned that the BBC had made a separate agreement with the British Amateur Athletic Board (BAAB), the sports authority accountable to selecting those to compete in the Olympics, which required the television fees to be sent to the BAAB.

The athletes felt that the BAAB were not responsive to their needs. For example, the athletes requested a pre-Tokyo training camp, but was rejected by the BAAB, which only got involved once the IAC agreed to fund such a training camp. When Brightwell explained the situation to his team, he wrote in his autobiography, that his teammates felt their individual rights were being violated:

“Hold on,” said one, “this isn’t a simple contractual dispute between two parties. It involves personal liberties. Whilst the Board is acting quite properly negotiating fixture contracts, that right doesn’t extend to binding individuals to appear in interviews. That is a personal matter for us to decide.”

“And there’s another important principle at stake,” added another. “Apart from flouting our right to decide whether we wished to appear on television, the Board is also set upon pocketing our appearance money.”

“That’s right,” piped up Ann. “I’ve just begged a ten-shilling parachute from my parents to keep the wolf from the door. If we all direct our fees to the IAC to reduce their running costs, they will be able to give us a rebate on the moneys we’ve paid to be here.”

“Damn right,” interjected Cooper. “Let’s have a vote on the issue.”

In the end, Brightwell explained to the influential secretary of the BAAB, Jack Crump, that his teammates “refused” to participate in the BBC program. But Crump was incensed. “Refused? Refused? I’m not negotiating with a trade union. I’m secretary to the British amateur athletic board, giving instructions to the British Olympic team captain.”

The two parties were at a standstill. There were compromises. The BAAB agreed that athletes had the right to choose whether to participate in the interviews or not. But the BAAB would not budge on where the fees would go. Brightwell was overseeing a split in his own team, as some athletes chose to appear on tv, and others did not. Brightwell, his fiancé Ann Packer and two of his 4×400 teammates, John Cooper and Adrian Metcalfe chose not to.”

brightwell-revolt-off_upi_sept-26-1964

The mantle of leadership weighed heavily on Brightwell. He escaped to a quiet spot with Packer and broke down in tears.

“What in God’s name is happening? We should be focused on the Olympics, not wrangling with a fossilized governing body about the rights and wrongs of appearing on television. Why are we in this situation?”

The next morning, the newspapers were writing of the “revolt”. On top of that, Brightwell was made aware of a move within the BAAB to take away Brightwell’s captaincy. Would his place on the Olympic team follow?

Brightwell, wracked with uncertainty, went to the team and told them that he was willing to step down as captain. Lynn Davies, the eventual gold medal winner of the long jump in Tokyo, knew that if the team put it to a vote, that Brightwell would have to change his mind. Davies proposed they vote, and the vote was unanimous – the team supported Brightwell.

In the end, the team manager, Pat Sage, approached Brightwell and said that this fight had to end. “I don’t intend going to Tokyo with this fracas hanging over me.” Sage said that he would support Brightwell in his captaincy with a desire to forge team unity if Brightwell would support him as team manager. Brightwell remained captain. And the headlines finally changed for the better:

“UK Olympic Team Calls Off Revolt Against Manager”

As the UPI article of September 26, 1964 stated, “We shook hands chatted, and so far as I am concerned the argument between Sage and myself is finished. I take back nothing of my views about the official bumbledom which led to these differences of opinion. But let’s bury the hatchet and look forward to Tokyo.”

olga-karasyova
Olga Karasyova

When famed Czech gymnast, Vera Caslavska, passed away last month, there was a section in a Guardian article about Caslavska that shocked me. In 1968, the Soviet Union’s women’s gymnastics team defeated the Czech team to take gold at the Mexico City Olympics. The Soviet team was said to have apparently employed a most horrifying doping technique.

To counter Caslavska and her team-mates, the Soviets took extreme measures. “In any other country it would have been called rape,” one of the Soviet coaches said a quarter of a century later, after one of the gymnasts had told a German television interviewer what happened.

Doctors had discovered that pregnant women could gain an advantage in muscle power, suppleness and lung capacity, because they produced more red blood cells. So all the gymnasts, two of whom were 15 at the time, were forced to become pregnant before the Olympics: if they did not have a husband or boyfriend, they were made to have sex with a male coach. Anyone who refused was thrown off the team.

After 10 weeks of pregnancy every gymnast had an abortion. They won the team gold medal by a fraction of a point, with Czechoslovakia second.

Wow.

This can’t be true, I thought. But it was reported in a major newspaper, I rationalized. But coaches could never get so many people to do this, I countered. But it’s been reported not only in the press, but also in documentaries, I learned.

The story first emerged in a major BBC documentary series in 1991 called “More Than a Game”. Then in 1994, a German RTL documentary featured, Olga Kovalenko, a member of that 1968 Soviet gymnastics team, who revealed the sordid details of pregnancy doping.

olga-karasyova-2But as Elizabeth Booth explains in this detailed blog post in November, 2015, it appears this sensational story of rape, pregnancy, abortion and hormones is bogus. The biggest hole in the story was the German documentary’s claim that Soviet Olga Kovalenko was revealing all. Apparently, the woman in the documentary was not Olga Kovalenko. The real gymnast, the one who competed in Mexico City on the Soviet gold-medal winning team, took a Russian sports magazine to court in proving that she was not a victim of rape doping.

Here’s how Kovalenko explained her surprise at this incredible story in a 2001 interviewa 2001 interview with a Russian journalist:

Once, German broadcaster RTL screened an interview … with my double!   A certain woman who said that she was Olympic champion in gymnastics, Olga Kovalenko.  (I actually took the surname of my second husband, but then divorced and again became Karaseva.). She gave a sensational interview, saying that the USSR coach forced the girls to get pregnant and then at the ninth or tenth week to have an abortion!  Doctors know that at these times there is a sharp increase in the levels of male hormones in the woman’s body, which in girls increases physical strength and brings new resources of life, a feeling of elation. It is meant to be a kind of doping. “That’s how we won,” – these are the words of the imaginary “Kovalenko”.

Of course, this interview was published by many news agencies, newspapers and magazines. The Moscow correspondent of the Spanish newspaper “ABC” Juan Jimenez de Partha somehow tracked down my phone and asked about the meeting. Imagine his disappointment when I told him it’s easy to prove that it is a pure fake. At the time, when my “understudy” was broadcasting live on abortion, I was on a sea cruise.  There is evidence in my passport!

Then “Paris Match” reporter Michel Peyrard, who had seen the “tremendous” interview on RTL, flew in to see me.  He was pretty surprised that I could speak perfect French, but also frustrated because he found no resemblance to the “Olga from Germany”.

In the end, as Booth explained, the suspicion of doping in the former Soviet Union was high at the time the story came out, as it is today with Russia, and thus our resistance to believing a story like this, even one as fantastical as this, has been low.

At the time the papers – quality and tabloid press alike – had little good to say about the sport.  A high profile rumour was also circulating that the female gymnasts were fed drugs to delay puberty, including one case where an ‘expert’ (we never found out exactly who) had observed photographs of a gymnast where her physical development had actually receded, rather than progressed.  The words ‘I would believe anything’ summed up the attitude of many in the press at that time.  

DAVID AND RICHARD ATTENBOROUGH - 2001
Richard and David Attenborough, 2001; photo by N Cunard/REX (336048j)

 

His older brother, Sir Richard Attenborough was known for playing iconic roles in blockbuster films, like Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett in The Great Escape, or John Hammond in Jurassic Park. But Sir David Attenborough is known for the iconic voice of nature films, that lilting, authoritative tone which brings a cheeky gravitas to the serious drama and dramatic silliness of all creatures great and small.

As a teaser to promote the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, Attenborough was brought on board by the BBC to provide a cultural anthropological assessment of the ice-bound homo sapien known as the “curler”.

Click on the video below to see nature and all its rituals, as if you are a fly on a barren tree in the frozen tundra.

Our planet, the earth, as we know it, is unique. It contains life even in its most barren stretches. In all my years of exploration, these are the creatures I find most curious. For the first time ever, filmed over the course of three afternoons in deepest Russia, using the world’s most state-of-the-art cameras, this…is…curling.

Here we have a pack of sliding curlers. Watch as the Alpha female displays her dominance over the herd by tapping the end of the frisking broom to check for rogue insects. This is a precise exercise. Off she goes, gently but flamboyantly launching the oversized walnut down the frozen river. The Alpha female’s job is now complete. It’s down to the herd to frantically follow the walnut down the river, gently frisking the foreground.

Past the red line the walnut goes. This is nature at its most vulnerable. You’ll notice a group of other walnuts are already near the flat, round nest. These are from other sliding curlers who thrust their nuts down earlier. This is to mark their territory. The aim of this ritual is to land your walnut in the center of the nest. The frisking is frantic and often futile, making no difference to the success of the net thrust. But it’s playful and all part of what makes this game the sliding curlers play so magical. Look how happy it makes them!

To see an authentic narration by Sir David Attenborough, watch this fascinating clip called “Flight of the Dung Beetle”.