Tony Sainsbury

The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) has issued a very detailed "blow by blow" open letter on the dispute with International Wheelchair Basketball Federation (IWBF), but unfortunately as a justification of their position it will probably back-fire as it appears to those not so directly involved as an act of desperation.

A hammer which will crack an already damaged nut. In this case not the IWBF but the Paralympic Movement. Those who know the new leadership will be disappointed that he has been persuaded to employ such methods as it lacks his normal sensitivity and emotional commitment to the well-being of all athletes.

All of those who have dedicated their lives to the Paralympic Movement are not concerned now about who did what to whom and when in a detailed and protracted legal document lacking all sensitivity to the issue at hand. 

Rather the Movement, and this means all its members whether sports or National Paralympic Committees (NPCs) or partners, should be reflecting on how and who will have the courage to say ‘Stop’! ‘Let’s sit together and work on the options and possible solutions to this impasse’. 

Unfortunately, the current impasse shows the immaturity of the organisation now in relation to its big brother the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The IOC would never have allowed this matter to develop into such a public argument.

Both organisations are faced with fundamental choices. The IPC quite rightly has to defend the integrity of the Paralympic Games of which classification is the foundation stone. The IWBF for its part has developed its sport to a global level because in creating teams the challenge is numerical.

But in arriving at its own classification system it too recognised that by widening its appeal to those with an impairment outside of recognised formal sports disability groups it embraced millions of people worldwide who felt neglected in terms of high-level sport. However, it did so in a responsible manner using its own functional classification system.

The inclusion of such individuals enabled the participation of those in a team sport with much more acute impairments. The IPC itself accepts this principle of sustainability by allowing able-bodied athletes to compete in the Paralympic Games in support of visually impaired athletes and even award them Paralympic medals.

The IPC's dispute with the IWBF stems from the IWBF being found non-compliant with the 2015 IPC Athlete Classification Code ©Getty Images
The IPC's dispute with the IWBF stems from the IWBF being found non-compliant with the 2015 IPC Athlete Classification Code ©Getty Images

The IPC is faced with a dilemma, not about what has gone before but deciding whether it wants to find a way for one of the most outstanding sports of the Paralympic Games to continue to excite the world.

The IWBF on the other hand is faced with the more fundamental challenge. Is it prepared to accept that the IPC’s ‘one size fits all’ classification system is to be its future classification tool and by so doing restrict the playing membership to a narrow band of participants similar to those dark days when only paraplegics were permitted to play the sport?

Or will it have a dual system of everyone playing at national level and in their IWBF events but then told they cannot aspire to represent their country at the Paralympic Games?

Both organisations have an overriding obligation to work tirelessly at finding the win-win solution. The current entrenched position with one side appearing to hold the whip hand and using it and fanning the flames with open letters is not the way forward.  There will only be losers.

The current dispute between the IPC and the IWBF is in some ways reminiscent of a similar conflict in the 1980s when JA Samaranch came to power. Two of the architects for his successful bid to be the IOC President came from FIFA’s Havelange and IAAF’s Nebiolo.

In spite of their personal commitment to the President and the new order they both saw their sports on an equal par with the Olympic Games and were jaundiced at the possibility that as participants in this world event their sports would be considered somewhat subservient by their involvement. 

The breakpoint for this came in 1984 when professional athletes first entered the Olympic Games. In 1992 FIFA with the IOC agreed to restrict Olympic participation to players under 23. This rule was modified in 1996 when three over-age players were allowed to participate.

In both FIFA and IWBF a team sport is involved, team sports regarded as having blue-ribbon status on their respective programmes because of their global appeal and in the case of wheelchair basketball the embodiment of a technically demanding activity often considered uncharacteristic of "disabled people" in society at large.

A face-to-face, sitting down together might consider a FIFA type solution. Basically, to change the rules for participation in the Paralympic Games to a competition restricted to under 23 year old players who conform to the eligibility rules of the IPC. 

Our writer argues that the postponement of Tokyo 2020 presents an ideal opportunity to find an amicable solution to the ongoing IPC and IWBF dispute ©Getty Images
Our writer argues that the postponement of Tokyo 2020 presents an ideal opportunity to find an amicable solution to the ongoing IPC and IWBF dispute ©Getty Images

The IWBF as with FIFA would then use all its energies to promote and develop its own World Championships to the highest level possible every four years for all members who fit their eligibility criteria. This comment is less about the solution and more about the content of any dual narrative and looking for options as to a way forward.

However even such a proposal should sit uncomfortably with both organisations whose value set is about the development of inclusive sports models for people with impairments. But the failure of the IPC to manage the dispute in house is disingenuous to themselves as leaders and to the Movement as a whole.

IWBF, so far to their credit has continued to try to find a middle ground even though their supporters have been more vocal.

The comments of some of their official representatives of ‘cheating’ and comparison with the Sydney 2000 INAS basketball situation are at best unhelpful and at worst disgraceful and insulting both to the IWBF and its athletes.

In recent years and particularly since the very successful Games in London 2012 the IPC has consistently promoted itself as the beacon of hope for people with an impairment in the world and not just those wishing to participate in sport. 

The IPC rightly feels it has a growing reach into all aspects of society through the shop-window of the Paralympic Games influencing residential development, public transport, access, communication – in fact the basis of a more inclusive society.

Yet within its own boundaries it seems to be determined to be restrictive in this regard and spend energy and questionable enforcement by maintaining a rigid "one rule fits all" solution to a very complex problem. 

Surely with the fortunate, in these circumstances, postponement of Tokyo now is the time to try to seek an accommodation acceptable to both organisations. The reinforcement of the IPC’s athlete-centred fundamental value would be enhanced by the reinstatement of those eligible for Tokyo under both IPC and IWBF classification rules, recognising them as victims of failure on both sides. 

And then for both leaders, Presidents Parsons and Mehrens to sit around the table, if needs be with neutral arbitration, to work hard to discover a way forward that helps to develop, sustain and maintain the momentum of the Paralympic Movement for all.