Cheating, threats and cover-ups: Allegations aimed at Australian Paralympic swimming

The Australian Paralympic movement is being implicated in global concerns about cheating, intimidation and cover-ups.

Swimming Australia is the focus of allegations that athletes are being encouraged to fake the extent of their disabilities to win medals.

Those who have complained say they have been warned to back off or face reprisals.

ABC News program The Ticket has spoken to swimmers, parents and officials who have flagged serious failings.

They say the situation has reached a critical point and administrators are looking the other way.

Without blowing the whistle, they say nothing would be done.

In the UK a parliamentary inquiry has raised explosive issues of cheating, bullying and questionable integrity.

Australian Olympic and Paralympic swim coach Simon Watkins said it is a similar story here.

"Certainly some of the issues that were highlighted in the parliamentary inquiry I would say are prevalent in Australian sport," he said.

Watkins said he had firsthand experience and was also aware of numerous other cases.

"Athletes I've been involved in the coaching of, certainly discussions on the pool deck at competition with various groups of people — whether they be officials in the sport, professionals, parents — I would say just about every group that you could identify as a stakeholder in the sport is aware of certain issues like those that you've highlighted," he said.

Swimming Australia has said coaches cheating the system will not be tolerated.

'Intentional misrepresentation' the focus of allegations

Most of the allegations focus on what is known as "intentional misrepresentation" during an athlete's classification procedure.

It is a two-part process, involving medical analysis and a physical test, to determine the category each athlete will compete in.

Athletes are allegedly being coached to cheat the system to boost their medal-winning chances in an easier category.

Those caught risk disciplinary action including a possible lifetime ban from their sport.

Coach Watkins said he reported his concerns to the governing bodies.

"I've certainly sent a letter, or email, listing concerns relating to a particular situation in the past," he said.

He confirmed it was an allegation of cheating.

"Yes. I did hear back, not in writing, but I did hear back and was sort of persuaded not to pursue it in any other official capacity," he said.

When asked whether reasons were given for asking him not to take the allegations further, he was told "it was being dealt with".

The athlete involved is no longer a swimmer but competes in another sport.

Swimmer says athletes being coached to cheat the system

One swimmer, who asked for her name to be withheld, said she knows athletes are being coached to cheat the system.

"Yep, very aware. There are several athletes who are still on the team who have brought up in casual conversation that they'd go for long runs, or bike rides, to increase how great the effect of their disability is," she said.

"Others would take cold showers. I've heard of one person saying they were classified in a colder climate so they were chucked in the snow a few minutes before their classification so they would tighten up."

There are other methods used that the swimmer said are not so secret.

"Not taking medication; having limbs bound up so they're not able to extend them … in general not trying, faking limps, all common knowledge," she said.

She detailed the lengths her coach told her to go to exaggerate her disability.

"I had a coach who once told me before my classification process that I should think about getting a stress ball and squeezing it so I would appear fatigued. It's common," she said.

She said like all athletes, she was told to sign an agreement never to speak about the classification process.

She said she is concerned that if she is identified she will face reprisals.

Mother of Paralympic swimmer threatened after raising concerns

Melinda Downie is the mother of a Paralympic swimmer who is a dual gold medallist, a Commonwealth Games silver medallist and has been awarded an Order of Australia Medal for services to the sport.

Yet when Ms Downie raised her own concerns with the governing bodies — Swimming Australia and the Australian Paralympic Committee — she said she was threatened.

She was told if she continued to discuss classification issues, her daughter's team selection would be jeopardised.

"I did receive an email in 2015 from [an official at Swimming Australia] and CCed to the Australian Paralympic Committee that threatened her future in Paralympic sport if I continued to talk about classification," Ms Downie said.

Paralympic swimming generic

The Ticket has seen a copy of the email that in part states:

"Should you continue making such communications you run the risk of breaching IPC [International Paralympic Committee] Classification code and IPC swimming rules, policies and procedures which may lead to APC or IPC Swimming taking direct action against your daughter thus jeopardising [her] future in

Paralympic Swimming."

Ms Downie said she forwarded the threatening email to the international governing body.

She said lucrative gold medals, government funding and increased public profile are likely reasons tempting some to cheat.

Ms Downie said she provided authorities with evidence of athletes being wrongly classified over a number of years.

She said she gave the evidence to Swimming Australia, the Australian Paralympic Committee and the international body.

"I got no response whatsoever from Swimming Australia and no recognition that I had provided this evidence," she said.

She claimed an Australian official told her "to drop it because I had to be careful about defamation".

Threats 'disappointing': Swimming Australia

The Ticket asked Swimming Australia chief executive Mark Anderson if threats — like the one made to Ms Downie — were common.

"No, it's not and the tone of that is disappointing. We do deal with our athletes and our coaches directly on classification, rather than through parents," he said.

"Regardless of that, the tone of that response isn't the tone I'd expect and it is certainly one that we do not support."

He said he is not aware of all of the allegations, but coaches cheating the system will not be tolerated.

"Any attempt to put an athlete in a position where they might not be fairly assessed within the rules of classification is attempting to bend or break the rules and we would absolutely come down heavily on that.

"If we knew of the situation, and the coaches, we would respond immediately and extremely strongly."

Australia finished fifth on the medal tally at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.

Swimmers collected 29 medals, nine of them gold.

Swimming Australia receives the most funding of 16 Para sports from the Australian Sports Commission and its Winning Edge Program.

But Mr Anderson rejects allegations that the pressure to win gold is leading to cheating.

"It's not about a medal tally, it's not about funding, it's about competing fairly and in the spirit of Paralympics," he said.

Asked whether there would be repercussions for those who spoke out to The Ticket, Mr Anderson said:

"Absolutely not, and let me be very clear on this point. We deal with and respect our athletes and our coaches fully and there will be no reprisals. That's not the way we operate as an organisation," Mr Anderson said.

Australian Paralympic Committee chief executive officer Lynne Anderson said she is not aware of any major issues.

"I've only been here for two-and-a-half years in this role, but I'd have to say we get very few complaints," she said.

"The ones that have come through have been investigated thoroughly internally and any other level we believe may be warranted and in all cases … none of the allegations were proved."

But swimmers, coaches and parents who spoke to The Ticket will take much more convincing.

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