Davis had triumphed over his disability, but that achievement would end up working against him the following year at the International Paralympic Committee World Championships in Assen, the Netherlands. Questioning the classification card he’d received in Oita, which categorized his disability according to a variety of factors (classification is to disabled athletics what weight classes are to boxing), the authorities decided to reassess him. Through a combination of tests and race observations, they determined he had better upper-body strength than other athletes in his class and assigned him to a new, more competitive one. The race for that class was already full, however, and he never got the chance to qualify for Beijing. Three years later, there’s no trace of bitterness in Davis’s voice as he recalls his near miss. But he does point out the absurdity of a competitive sport that encourages athletes to be good — just not too good.
Given the stakes, it’s not surprising that athletes want to win, even if it means undershooting their full potential. Back when he was logging fifty to seventy kilometres a day to prepare for Beijing, Davis was aware of several teammates who didn’t train at all, increasing their chances of being assigned to a less competitive class. It’s an approach that may not quite constitute cheating, though there have been incidents of that, too. The most infamous classification con occurred at the Sydney Games in 2000. Shortly after the intellectually disabled Spanish basketball team won gold, undercover journalist Carlos Ribagorda revealed that ten of the twelve players, including himself, didn’t undergo the required mental tests; some turned out to be university graduates. The team was stripped of its medals, and athletes with intellectual disabilities were not permitted to compete in the Paralympic Games until the policy was finally overturned this past November.
Rumours of foul play began circulating once again at the 2008 Summer Games, after Dutch soccer coach Jan-Hein Evers challenged a 12–1 loss to the Russians. There were unsubstantiated reports that a common tactic among certain classes of athletes involved jumping up and down for hours before classification to tire the muscles and appear less stable, while BBC sports correspondent Alex Capstick wrote that “classification cheating is in many ways a bigger problem than doping for the credibility of the Paralympic movement.”
Peter Van de Vliet, medical and scientific director for the IPC, denies there were any cases of classification cheating in Beijing. “I have a philosophical problem with the word ‘cheating,’ ” he explains over the phone from his office in Bonn, Germany. He acknowledges, however, that some athletes need to be pushed by officials to demonstrate the full extent of their abilities in the classification room, and that those who do not “perform up to the expectations of the classifier,” or who perform much better in competition than they did under examination, may be subject to last-minute reclassifications like Davis’s.
Whether or not the ninety-five reclassifications carried out in Beijing offer any evidence of cheating, we know they have meant a sudden end to the Paralympic dreams of many athletes, such as Derek Malone, the Irish soccer player with cerebral palsy who was told after his opening game with Iran that his symptoms weren’t serious enough to qualify him for CP football. Malone maintained that he’d only managed to suppress those symptoms through rigorous training, and at a press conference he echoed Davis’s sentiment: “How can you have a system that penalizes athletes for working hard at their skills? ”
Exhibiting the same Olympic spirit that made him a hero for a day in Oita, Sonny Davis is now preparing to race a handcycle in London 2012, at which time a classification system launched just before Beijing — which takes into account not only an athlete’s condition but how it relates to his/her sport, and makes all criteria transparent — will be more fully in place. Asked whether he will lay off training too hard before he secures a classification card, he laughs: “If I get the class I need to make the team, great. But either way, I’ll continue to keep my body in the best shape it can be.”