Why Paralympic athletes need to unionize

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The Canadian women’s wheelchair basketball team, shown here competing in the 2012 Paralympics, have spoken out about a need for inclusion in the sport Wikimedia Commons

Reclassification fight shines light on why disabled athletes need support

When wheelchair basketball athletes like the UK’s George Bates are speaking to the BBC about cutting their legs off just to continue playing basketball, you know there’s something wrong. 

A little background: wheelchair basketball – and all other para, disabled, or adapted sports played at the Paralympic level – have some form of what’s called a classification system. For the uninitiated, that means a set of criteria athletes have to meet in order to be deemed eligible to play at the Paralympics. The International Paralympic Committee changes their classification code periodically and has now forced one of their major sports federations, the International Wheelchair, Basketball Federation or IWBF, into line. 

Traditionally, the IWBF has had the loosest classification rulings. The IWBF’s old code essentially stated that the main criteria for participation was having a disability that limited participation in non-disabled sport, also called a minimal disability. Whereas other sports are far more limited in their scope, like wheelchair rugby’s requirement that at least three limbs be significantly affected, or swimming and track and field’s stratified classification system, with those in each class competing in their own racing category. Put simply, wheelchair basketball, while not being the only sport that has faced classification drama – swimming’s even made it into industry publications – has traditionally been the sport at the higher end of classification system. When your stated goal is to involve everybody, any attempt to limit that is going to be seen as negative. Some sports have clamoured for a tougher code in order to protect what they feel is the integrity of their sport, so the IWBF can hardly claim it is the only organization undergoing a seismic shift, just the one with the loudest athletes, perhaps. 

In an attempt to get the basketball players into line, the IPC warned the IWBF that if a reclassification process was not in place soon, this being in 2019, then wheelchair basketball would be at risk of not attending Tokyo 2020. The first point of contention was the 4.5 and 4 classifications, the highest in wheelchair basketball On July 29, it was announced that of the 132 athletes tested 119 were deemed eligible, with nine non-eligible, and four awaiting further review. This was the result of years of argument. 

So, how did we get to Bates threatening to pursue legal action to continue the sport he has dedicated his life to? Well, the IPC and IWBF, despite always claiming that the Paralympic movement was always about inclusion, have shown some athletes – at least in their own minds – that this is not necessarily the case. Many in the wheelchair basketball community see the reliance on a set of disability categories as a move away from the inclusive nature of the sport. Bates’ disability does not meet the criteria because it isn’t on the list and doesn’t have an easily quantifiable impact – despite an amputation being offered to him at a younger age – and that is what some are calling a nonsensical approach. 

And so began the blame game. We have the IWBF blaming the IPC, the IPC blaming the IWBF, and the athletes (on the whole) blaming both. Which is how we get to my point: the only way for athletes in all of para sport to feel comfortable is if they unionize. 

During the Olympics, many of the big-ticket athletes, think those of the NHL and the NBA, already have a union fighting for them. Not only that, they have money from their pursuits outside of the four-year cycle. They can, without much penalty, give the Olympics a miss. Disabled sport, on the whole, doesn’t have that luxury. The funding structures are rooted in programs like Canada’s Own the Podium. There is very little wiggle room for the athletes, and they are not represented well. The only voice the athletes have is collective, like when a number spoke out after a coach for Team China’s women’s team was initially only suspended for one game after slapping a player in the middle of a huddle at the 2018 world championships. The IWBF was slow to react then just as they are now.

The IWBF (falsely it seems) assumed that they had the leverage. In principle, they’re right, they have the labour force that would rally to the cause. Except for one problem: they are beholden to the funders – who only really care about the Paralympic cycle anyway – and the member organizations that are almost never athlete-led. In fact, in a statement by Wheelchair Basketball Canada’s women’s team, the IPC athlete council was called out alongside the other parties – it should be noted Canada’s David Eng, a stalwart of the sport and frequent spokesperson for the Canadian Paralympic Committee, was also deemed ineligible by the recent ruling – for not fulfilling their promise to athletes.  They wrote: 

“The IWBF, the IPC and the IPC Athletes’ Council are athlete-centered organizations, yet in this case the best interests of the athletes seem to have been lost along the way. It is crucial that they understand the toll this has taken on each individual athlete, as well as the entire team.”

But how could unionization work? It’s quite obvious why a committee as part of the larger organization(s) doesn’t. Namely, because they are under the control of the organization if they are inside their doors. For example, if you look at the UK’s rugby union set up, the player’s union is funded in part by the league and its teams. That is not a partnership, but an ownership model. In order for a Paralympic athlete model to succeed it would need to be fully independent. 

To do so would also require a rethinking of the sport union structure. Where the NBA is the employer of the NBA Players’ Association’s members, the IPC is not the employer of its athletes. Outside of wheelchair basketball and tennis, few Paralympic athletes are professionals outside of their own member organization’s federal funding – in Canada, that’s called carding money. But a different model already exists. Organizations like the Canadian Freelancers’ Union, who are further affiliated with UNIFOR, aren’t directly tied to an employer, but bargain on behalf of a collective. The same model could expand to Paralympic Sport. 

At the moment, aside from IWBF and IPC appeals of their sport-specific classifications, the only way forward for disabled athletes is to go to the Court for Arbitration for Sport, a costly move that would inevitably require the agreement of the athlete’s member organization. Some deemed ineligible have already announced their retirement from international competition, meaning that they have seemingly decided that the fight isn’t worth it, for justifiable reasons. 

If athletes want their voice at the table then they need to unionize, a more formal step than a change.org petition currently making the rounds. They need to think in terms of a formalized structure rather than an ad hoc attempt at fairness. Disabled people are already discriminated against on a regular basis. Seeing athletes like Bates be pushed out of their sport is an acknowledgement by the IPC and the IWBF that they are not quite as athlete or inclusion-centred as they they think they are. 

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