Dirty Pool at the Paralympics: Will Cheating Ruin the Games?

The Paralympics are hugely inspirational—and, increasingly, big business. With more money at stake, more athletes are finding ways to cheat the system to win. Heading into Tokyo, legendary U.S. swimmer Jessica Long says it’s time to fight back.
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It was a rare moment of vulnerability for one of the U.S.’s most decorated swimmers, whose singular pursuit of greatness had made her among the most marketable athletes in para-sports. As Long wept, she did not feel like a 12-time Paralympic gold-medal winner. She felt cheated and broken, lost and wondering whether she should continue with a sport that now seemed rigged against her.

Her father had seen this moment coming. In phone calls and visits, Steve Long had told Jessica that she needed to prepare herself for disappointment in Brazil. Jessica ignored his warnings. Since becoming an internationally competitive swimmer at age 12, she had always found a way to conquer any challenge. Now, though, she felt powerless.

To assure competitive balance, the governing body World Para Swimming classifies swimmers into different racing divisions, according to their physical abilities. But in the year leading up to the 2016 Games, Long—whose legs were amputated just below her knees when she was 18 months old—noticed when she stepped atop the starting block that the racers up and down the line seemed more able-bodied than they had been in Athens, Beijing or London.

Long had hoped to win multiple gold medals, but after more than a week in Brazil she had lost four races to swimmers against whom she was certain she should not have been competing. Already, two of her world records had been broken. The one gold medal—the 13th of her career—three silvers and two bronzes she would take home to Baltimore would have been a triumph for most athletes. But for Long, her parents and countless other swimmers and fans, it was a sign that para-athletics’ future was in grave danger.

There is a cheating epidemic within the Paralympic movement, Long and her allies say, an outbreak of para-athletes who are faking or playing up the significance of their disabilities to be grouped with less able-bodied competitors, making it easier to win medals—and money and influence. While para-sport cheating is not new—Spain was stripped of its intellectual disability gold medals from the 2000 Games after nearly all the team’s players were found to have no disability, and allegations have been levied in para-track and field—the furor around swimming has grown so intense that, heading into the 2020 Games this summer in Tokyo, it threatens to tear the sport apart.

One of America's most decorated athletes, Long has led the charge against alleged cheating in para-swimming. (Donald Miralle)

One of America's most decorated athletes, Long has led the charge against alleged cheating in para-swimming. (Donald Miralle)

Long says that she has overheard coaches talking to swimmers about tanking assessment races. Other swimmers have called out cheating. At least one high-profile coach has done it on Twitter. Parents of para-swimmers break down competitors’ social media videos, Zapruder-like, studying foot falls and arm placements during walks and workouts, hoping to catch a giveaway. In September, the Irish para-swimmer Ailbhe Kelly abruptly announced her retirement at age 20, citing frustrations with the classification system. Early this year former world champion Amy Marren also left Paralympic swimming, writing in a social media post that “there is a long way to go before it becomes a level playing field.”

“I don’t want to seem like a poor sport,” Long says, sitting inside an office just off the pool at the Olympic Training Center one morning this winter in Colorado Springs. She’s 27 and recently married, with 23 Paralympic medals, an autobiography, three ESPY awards, and sponsors that include Toyota and the swimwear maker Arena. “But I can’t watch this sport that I love continue to get destroyed like this,” she says. “All of this is happening on a world stage, and no one in charge is doing anything about it.”

A member of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee’s media staff is sitting along a nearby wall, pecking out a message on a cellphone. Long hesitates, looks sideways at her. The swimmer closes her eyes and wipes a shock of electric-blond hair from her face. She exhales deeply.

“If I don’t say something,” Long says, “then who is going to stand up for the rest of us?”

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Earlier this year, Long went through her strokes while training at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. (Donald Miralle)

Earlier this year, Long went through her strokes while training at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. (Donald Miralle)

In the years following World War II, Ludwig Guttmann, a neurologist at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital for veterans, outside London, observed that engaging spinal-injury patients in competition could aid their recovery. So in 1948 he organized the first Stoke Mandeville Games, held on hospital grounds and featuring just 16 vets. Two years later, competitors from other countries traveled to the hospital, and Guttmann’s brainchild soon grew into the modern para-movement: At the first Paralympics in 1960, 400 athletes from 23 countries showed up in Rome. This year in Japan, there will be 4,400 athletes from 160 countries.

With the motto “Spirit in Motion,” the Games have emphasized the intersection of competition and inspiration. It’s not a hard sell. Athletes often talk of the Paralympics—and para-sports, in general—in life-affirming terms. Among the 22 sports offered at this year’s Tokyo Games, there is perhaps no event that better exemplifies that attitude than swimming: Many athletes got their start as part of pool-rehabilitation programs that allowed them to leave prosthetics, wheelchairs and braces behind.

“When I took that first lap and then that second lap, it was the first time in my life where I felt my wheelchair and I were separate,” says Leanne Smith, a 31-year-old from Salem, Mass., who lives with a rare neurological muscle disease called dystonia and has a world record in the 50-meter butterfly. “This is something I can do that’s the same as anyone else. I’m not different.”

Since no two disabilities are alike, para-competition follows a series of classification rules that match skill, fitness, power, endurance, tactical ability and mental focus among athletes. In swimming, for example, World Para Swimming sets the classification range from S1 (for the most physically disabled) to S10 (the least) and then from S11 to S14, categories that cover visual impairments and intellectual disabilities. Another subset of classifications exists for the breaststroke—which has a nonlinear kick—and the individual medley, which requires four different strokes.

Because of privacy issues surrounding medical records and examinations, swim classification is a complicated and often secretive process that is not easily understood. World Para Swimming appoints classifiers who evaluate athletes in and out of the pool: From S1 to S10, there are guidelines on everything from the extent of amputations to muscle strength and joint flexibility, and there is a three-part review that includes physical examination, medical reports and an in-pool assessment at meets. Swimmers with missing limbs, like Long, are often placed in the S8 category, which can also include athletes with cerebral palsy and other disabilities that hinder range of motion and limb strength. For years, the inexact science of classification was relatively uncontroversial, in part because the International Paralympic Committee—the global governing body for Paralympic sport—had focused attention on the feel-good nature of the competitions.

Recently, though, Paralympic sport has grown into big business, with countries and sponsors pouring in millions of dollars to fund and promote athletes whose stories highlight the best of humanity. The IPC says 4.1 billion viewers tuned into the Paralympics in 2016—doubling the number from 2004—and they expect even more people to watch the 2020 games. A record 3.1 million tickets were requested in the first 2020 Paralympic lottery—far exceeding the 2.3 million available. Countries like Great Britain will feature wire-to-wire coverage, sponsored by the likes of Toyota and BP. Samsung and Visa have sunk millions of advertising dollars into the 12-day event, which begins in late August, two weeks after the Olympic Games.

In the past several years, countries have begun putting Paralympians on footing equal to their Olympic counterparts. Last summer, for example, the U.S. Olympic Committee formally changed its name to the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee—becoming among the first national Olympic bodies to recognize Paralympians in its name.

Leading into 2016, athletes and their parents (many of whom help manage parts of their children’s day-to-day lives) suddenly discovered their sports had achieved a level of marketability. Most elite swimmers can carve out a small living; some even have six-figure incomes. U.S. Paralympians this year will receive $37,500 for each gold medal they earn, $22,500 for silver and $15,000 for bronze—figures equal to their Olympic counterparts. The payout for Paralympic gold is a five-fold increase from Rio.

Long has achieved a level of financial success uncommon even among Olympic athletes. She has a slew of corporate sponsors and her memoir, Unsinkable, came out in 2018—the same year Forbes listed her among 30 under 30 “most winning athletes and entrepreneurs,” joining NBA stars Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis.

Even among Paralympians who never ink major deals, financial opportunities can include sponsorship agreements, in-house training camps and monthly stipends that cover basic costs. Some of the U.S.’s best para-athletes are invited to live and train rent-free at the Olympic Training Center. Australian para-athletes can receive tens of thousands of dollars in government funding and other perks, including college scholarships, vehicles and housing.

“The incentive to cheat is huge,” says Long. “If you’re not in the right classification, you’re basically stealing funding and opportunities from other people. This is not the NFL. There’s only so much money to go around.”

Going into the 2016 Paralympics, athletes and their parents and coaches began accusing competitors of what’s called “intentional misrepresentation”—of blowing
assessment races by purposefully slowing down or reducing kick strength and arm-stroke length with the hope of getting reclassified among more disabled competition and creating a clearer path to victory.

In a 2017 investigation, The Guardian in the United Kingdom reported that para-athletes in multiple sports were accused of taping limbs for long periods to reduce flexibility before classification exams and of taking ice-cold showers to worsen already weak muscle tone among those living with cerebral palsy. During a British parliamentary hearing on the classification topic that same year, athletes’ parents turned against their children’s teammates.

Those making the allegations can also come under fire. In 2015, the reigning U.S. Paralympic coach of the year, Brian Loeffler, publicly accused 16-year-old Australian swimmer Maddison Elliott of tanking a race to get a more favorable classification. Soon after, U.S. Paralympics removed Loeffler from Team USA’s travel list, though it never announced a reason for the punishment. In 2016, former U.S. Paralympian Ian Silverman accused Australian, British and Ukrainian swimmers of intentionally misrepresenting their abilities. And last year para-swimmer turned Paralympic medal-winning Australian cyclist Amanda Reid sued a broadcaster for airing her former coach’s allegation that Reid had attempted to fake a visual impairment, arriving at a swim meet with a white cane when she had driven a vehicle a few weeks earlier.

“We’re hitting a crisis level,” says Silverman. “How do you train and get up in the morning and sacrifice important parts of your life knowing that you’re part of a s----- system and that, in the end, you’re probably going to get screwed?”

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Australia's Lakeisha Patterson is among the swimmers who've been accused of cheating—without hard proof. (Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Australia's Lakeisha Patterson is among the swimmers who've been accused of cheating—without hard proof. (Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

When Steve Long turned on his computer and opened a blank Word document a few months before the Rio Games, he was ready to destroy the system. He wanted to protect para-swimming’s integrity, he says now, but he also wanted to protect his daughter’s legacy.

Ever since Jessica broke into international para-swimming at the 2004 Athens Games as Team USA’s youngest representative, she has been a rare force within her sport. Born in Russia without most of the bones in her feet, ankles or fibulas, she was left at a Siberian orphanage at 13 months. Steve and his wife, Beth, adopted her—and a boy—shortly afterward, taking them home to Maryland. Jessica had both legs amputated below the knee before her second birthday, though her father has come to think she also gained something important that day.

Even after the amputations, Jessica quickly learned to walk. She was soon climbing tables and chairs. Her parents would find her atop kitchen counters. By eight she was turning spins at a gymnastics center and swimming in her grandparents’ backyard pool. At 10 she was swimming for a nearby club team, keeping up with nondisabled competitors several years older. Two years later she was winning gold medals. At 15, she won the AAU Sullivan Award, given to the nation’s top amateur athlete, beating out Michael Phelps and making her the first disabled athlete to receive the award in its then-77-year history.

From his home office, Steve typed out a 1,500-word submission that was posted on the popular online swimming-news site SwimSwam, raising questions about the classification process for swimmers and accusing competitors by name of intentionally misrepresenting their abilities.

“I played the role of the bad guy,” says Long, who has six children and works as a supervisor at Baltimore Gas and Electric. “And I happily did it for Jessica.”

Long likened para-misrepresentation to taking steroids. “I feel devastated for the swimmers who have worked extremely hard and will be forced to race athletes of clearly lesser physical impairment,” he wrote. “If the IPC doesn’t step in to ensure fair play, the ‘dopers’ of the Paralympics will run away with the records and the medals!”

Among Long’s targets was Elliott, the 16-year-old Australian who later won three gold and two silver medals at the 2016 Paralympics and has twice been named Swimming Australia’s Paralympic swimmer of the year. Elliott initially had been classed up, from an S8 to an S9, at the 2015 worlds in Glasgow. During that meet, she posted a 1:25.42 in her S9 100-meter backstroke, finishing well out of contention while showing what appeared to be a weak leg kick. Based on that swim, Elliott was reclassified S8. Later at the same meet, she swam another 100-meter backstroke, this time in the S8 category, and finished in 1:17.93—nearly eight seconds faster than earlier in the week—taking gold and narrowly missing a meet record. In his post, Long had branded the race “the most egregious example of this manipulation.”

Long’s missive made him a hero among some para-swimming parents, several of whom continue to post comments at the end of SwimSwam stories. Those comments have accused swimmers of showing up on the pool deck suddenly in wheelchairs or wearing previously unseen braces. Any win is viewed with skepticism. “Wherever I go to watch Jessica, people are angry about what they’re seeing,” Long says. “I have a whole bunch of people who agree with me. We’re not going away.”

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American gold-medal favorite Leanne Smith says claims of cheating have “devastated” her. (Holly Allison/TPI/Shutterstock)

American gold-medal favorite Leanne Smith says claims of cheating have “devastated” her. (Holly Allison/TPI/Shutterstock)

The cheating claim has followed Elliott, who now is 21 and lost her national team spot after she was reclassified as an S9 in 2017. She could not be reached for comment, but last year took on the allegations on Facebook. Elliott said that she’d been cyberbullied and went “through absolute hell.” In March 2019, she told an Australian news site that she had experienced depression and anxiety because of online harassment. “I feel that I don’t deserve . . . to mention any of my records or medals anymore,” she said. “I got to a point where I wanted to quit swimming altogether. . . . I just want to cry. And it just hurts.”

Para-athletes are often young, and the act of accusing one of faking a disability—or hamming one up—can have consequences. It’s difficult to think of a more personal accusation. One of the most targeted swimmers, Lakeisha Patterson, an Australian 21-year-old who won six medals in Rio and set a world record in the S8 400-meter freestyle, has been singled out in online forums, where she’s been accused without hard proof of misrepresenting symptoms of cerebral palsy and early-onset Parkinson’s disease.

Parents have scoured Patterson’s social media videos for signs that she is faking her disability. Even though Patterson, who declined to comment to SI, is now classified as an S9, the criticisms have not let up. At least one parent of a para-swimmer has circulated social media videos of Patterson to para-governing arms, media and other parents as an attempt to get the swimmer removed from competition. Because Patterson’s medical records—like anyone’s—are confidential, many argue that making claims against athletes like her is irresponsible.

“Every four years, everyone becomes an expert in classification,” says Liz Johnson, a British Paralympic gold-medal-winning swimmer who now works as a TV analyst. She is critical over what she says is an overzealousness to track down supposed cheats. “This is not helpful to the spirit” of para-competition, Johnson says. “There was a time when Jessica Long was ahead in her races by 12 seconds, but that was not questioned because she doesn’t have legs.”

“I have to believe that 99.9% of these athletes are doing things the right way,” she adds. “The idea of accusing someone of not being disabled, or not being impaired enough, is ridiculous. Frankly, it’s offensive.”

The classification fight reached its zenith in September at the World Para Championships in London. For months leading up to the event, Jessica Long had quietly whipped up support among her fellow swimmers, urging them to join her in speaking out. “People were coming up to me on the pool deck, telling me they supported what I was saying,” Long says now. “I wasn’t sure how people would initially react to me being so out there with my opinions, but I felt energized. I felt like we’d finally hit a tipping point.”

“Jessica is like our Michael Phelps,” says Haven Shepherd, a 16-year-old double leg amputee S8 swimmer and Team USA member who was nearly killed as a toddler in Vietnam when her biological parents died by suicide after setting off bombs in their home. “When Jessica speaks, her words carry weight that no one else has. Whatever Jessica says to do, I’ll do it, because I want this sport to survive.”

Long considered leaving swimming many times, especially immediately after Rio. The idea of diving into a pool meet after meet and already knowing the outcome was demoralizing. But she continued, if not for the outright competition, then to make the IPC uncomfortable with her presence. “It was about showing up and showing my face,” Long says. “I was not going to back down.”

During the world championships, Ailbhe Kelly, the 20-year-old Irish S8 swimmer, announced she would retire after the meet, saying the IPC needed to clean up classifications. Long encouraged Kelly to continue speaking out at the meet. With Kelly’s pending retirement and Long’s voice, swimmers were finally talking openly about their concerns. “Part of me wanted to leave it behind and just get on with my life,” Kelly says now. “But what does that do? I have to speak up because, for me, if I don’t say something now, when will I ever have that chance again?”

During the meet, Long lost twice to Alice Tai, a 21-year-old Brit with a club foot who had first competed as an S10 but had been reclassified down twice since Rio. Tai won five individual championships, including the 100-meter freestyle, in which Long finished second.

Before the freestyle event, Long says, Tai admitted to her that she was incorrectly classified. “My head was spinning,” Long remembers. “It was obvious she didn’t care. It was a slap in the face to everyone who’d gone there to compete.” Tai did not respond to requests for comment, but in London she expressed frustration with her classification to reporters. “For me the hardest part is I love racing, so to have some of my events where I’m quite far ahead of the field on paper can be kind of annoying because I love a good, gritting-your-teeth sort of race,” said Tai, who has three S8 world records. “But at the end of the day, it’s the IPC’s decision, and I have to do what they say.”

Not all Team USA members were happy with Long’s determination to push the classification issue in London. Leanne Smith, who is favored to win multiple gold medals in Tokyo, says Long is distracting from the good that para-sports brings to athletes’ lives.

Smith was “devastated” when she was reclassified from an S7 to an S4 and then an S3 in the years following a series of seizures that robbed her of even more mobility, a feeling made worse when she noticed online comments suggesting she was gaming the system. “That hurt me,” says Smith. “I worked my butt off to get back into the pool, and here I am, being judged by people who have no idea what was going on in my life.” Before her 100-meter breaststroke event at worlds, she asked her coach if she should purposefully slow down to avoid unwanted attention. “I wondered what people would say if I had a blowout race,” Smith remembers. “I didn’t want to be a victim of the bashing. My coach thought I was crazy. He told me to show up and swim.”

“I don’t think it’s Alice Tai’s fault that she’s classified where she is because that wasn’t her decision,” Smith says. “I respect Jessica Long and everything she has done for Paralympic swimming, but she’s drawing negativity to the movement that isn’t necessary. We’re beginning to see positive attention, so why would we want to be set back? If it turns into a bitching session, what do we get out of that?”

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Many Team USA swimmers, like 16-year-old Haven Shepherd, look up to and support Long; others argue her crusade has been damaging. (Donald Miralle)

Many Team USA swimmers, like 16-year-old Haven Shepherd, look up to and support Long; others argue her crusade has been damaging. (Donald Miralle)

Long is unapologetic about calling out a system she thinks is unfair to a major-ity of its athletes. “I’m not going to bury my head” she says. World Para Swimming and the IPC have never approached Long about claims brought up by her or her father, she says, adding that she believes the USOPC has not taken her claims seriously. “They can turn their backs on me, but it’s not like I’ve only earned one gold medal in my career,” Long says. “They can’t ignore me forever.”

While World Para Swimming did not respond to multiple requests for comment, the IPC says it has taken swimmers’ concerns seriously. In 2018 it implemented a wholesale review that the organization says resulted in the reclassification or removal of 30% of swimmers within para-competition. That process initially heartened swimmers like Long and Kelly, but their hope diminished after two S10 male swimmers without a history of allegations were bumped from para-swimming while other swimmers, whose classifications had been openly debated, remained within their classes. “We all thought we’d see meaningful change, but it’s more of the same garbage,” Long says.

The IPC issued a statement to SI that said the organization treats “all allegations made against athlete classification seriously. Each allegation is looked into and, where merited, appropriate action is taken. The IPC and World Para Swimming are confident that classification is robust.”

The reality is, that, even under the best circumstances, it’s a Herculean task to neatly sort athletes with diverse physical abilities into 10 categories. Accusing a competitor
of intentionally misrepresenting their condition is incredibly fraught—and potentially damaging.

Julie Dussliere, the USOPC’s Chief of Paralympic Sport, says “there isn’t a mechanism for an overnight fix” and that athletes will have to be patient. World Para Swimming, she says, is working to better understand how different disabilities impact performance, a process that could take years. “I’m confident that the IPC is working with World Para Swimming, as they are with many other international federations, to ensure that the playing field is as fair and level as it can be at the international level,” Dussliere says.

As it stands, the IPC says its Athlete Classification Code will be reviewed beginning in 2021, as it was in ’15. Some swimmers are disappointed that the review will come after Tokyo. “If I miss the Paralympics or miss out on a medal because someone was misclassified, I don’t get that opportunity back,” says Shepherd, the 16-year-old American.
“What does the IPC say to me when I get robbed?”

Back in Colorado Springs, Long emerges from a back room at the Olympic Training Center in a teal-and-navy racing suit and walks across the pool deck. She takes off one prosthetic, braces herself against the painted cinderblock wall, then removes the other. Long believes that the IPC should open surprise classification tests in the future, where swimmers will be unaware of when they’re being watched in the water. Records and medals from Tokyo, she says, should also include an asterisk if that swimmer is classified higher at a later time.

Long says she would like to compete until 2028, when the Olympics and Paralympics will be in Los Angeles. By then, she’ll be in her mid-30s. With the Paralympics on U.S. soil, she insists she’d find a way to stay in racing form.

First, though, she has to get through this year’s games. “I know things could get difficult for me in Tokyo,” she says. It is not lost on her that the very success of the pursuit she’s devoted her life to—the acceptance of a movement whose mission is acceptance—has brought it to this perilous crossroads.

“I have to know that I’m fighting for something that’s much bigger than me,” Long says before getting into the pool. “The Paralympics have given me so much, and I know what this sport can do for a young kid when it’s at its best.”

She admits it’s tough being in the pool twice a day, putting in work. Lately, though, as the Games draw closer, Long has begun to think about the competitors she knows she’ll see on the starting blocks. “That’s the thing motivating me across the pool,” she says. “I close my eyes, and I can see them. I just really want to kick some asses.”