The lack of severely-impaired swimmers in the British team at this summer’s Paralympics could mean a missed chance to highlight sporting opportunities for other people with similar conditions, according to a leading athlete and activist.
Helen Dolphin is Britain’s fastest 200 metre freestyle swimmer in the S5 category, but because of flaws in the classification system missed out on qualification for London 2012 at the Paralympic trials.
British swimmers could only qualify for the games by clocking times that matched the third best time in the world for their classification – plus an extra two per cent – when the trials were held in March at the Aquatics Centre in the Olympic Park.
The world record for her S5 event is 45 seconds faster than her personal best (swimmers with physical impairments are categorised from S1 to S10, with S1 for those with the most severe impairments).
Dolphin, who is director of policy and campaigns for the charity Disabled Motoring UK, says she would have had to secure a time which was fractions of a second slower than that of swimming sensation Ellie Simmonds – who competes in the S6 category – in order to qualify.
She said: “I believe that there are problems with the classification system, particularly in the lower categories where disabilities are so diverse.
“I don’t wish to take anything away from anybody’s achievements, but for the sake of future athletes with severe impairments I believe it is time for the classification system to be looked at properly.
“I really don’t believe it is possible for anybody with my impairment to swim anywhere near the GB qualification time. I’ve looked at the times of men with similar disabilities and even they are not close to this time.”
The classification system is the responsibility of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), while British Swimming, the governing body for British swimmers, selects the teams.
Dolphin fears that problems with the classification and selection system will mean very few swimmers with severe impairments will represent Britain at London 2012.
With so few British role models on show, she says, this could make it harder to encourage more people with impairments such as hers – she had her legs and hands amputated 15 years ago – to take up swimming.
She said: “Surely it is better to have somebody in these categories swimming there than nobody.
“The message should be that people – whatever their disabilities – can be involved in sport. And if you are number one in your category, surely you should be swimming at London 2012.”
The IPC said it could not comment on individual cases, but a spokesman said that Paralympic athletes were grouped by the “extent of activity limitation they have in common” rather than by their impairment or performance.
He said: “Because the extent of activity limitation and impairment is complex and has continuous variables, it is mathematically impossible to create a classification system in which classes only comprise athletes experiencing exactly the same degree of activity limitation.
“By furthering our understanding of both biomechanics of swimming and more accurate measuring of impairment, the boundaries of classes are subject to regular review.
“However, no system should systematically disadvantage more severely impaired [athletes] within a class.”