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British Paralympian subjected to ‘inappropriate and humiliating’ classification test

In Sports
January 23, 2024
Tully Kearney celebrates winning the gold medal in Tokyo

Tully Kearney was born with cerebral palsy before developing generalised dystonia – Getty Images/Dean Mouhtaropoulos

Tully Kearney, the gold medal-winning Paralympic swimmer, has made a formal complaint after claiming that she was subjected to “an inappropriate, insulting, at times humiliating” classification process.

Kearney, who won gold in Tokyo in 2021 in the 100m freestyle S5, has written to World Para Swimming over her “appalling” treatment that, she says, included being “hauled up out” of her wheelchair and being made to complete complex paperwork despite suffering from a concussion.

The 26-year-old was born with cerebral palsy before developing generalised dystonia – a progressive neurological movement disorder – when she was a teenager.

Kearney, a 10-time world champion, says that her treatment has “almost broken me” and she now wants to appeal against the decision to change her Paralympic classification to S6 from S5, which she had competed in since 2018.

Tully Kearney won gold in Tokyo in 2021

Kearney won gold in Tokyo in 2021 – ParalympicsGB/PA

“As I have two neurological conditions, one stable and one progressive, it is irrational and unreasonable to reach a conclusion on my classification status that states my disabilities have actually ‘improved’,” she told the BBC.

“This is a medical impossibility. I am now required to compete against athletes with a much lower degree of impairment when compared with myself.”

In response to the accusations, World Para Swimming said that the “details of an individual athlete’s classification are confidential and World Para Swimming is unable to comment on the classification of individual athletes”.

Kearney said that, after an initial assessment in March 2023, she was made to wait for “approximately six hours with no communication” before being told that classifiers could not reach a decision.

A second review then took place four months later in Manchester, with Kearney claiming that “excessive” additional points were added to her classification score.

She says that she was shown one piece of paperwork that asserted she now walks with crutches, despite this not being the case since 2016.

“Not only was it an insensitive error but also indicates that the process that took place… was inherently flawed,” she said.

‘Hurtful to me on a personal level’

Kearney also claims that one classifier asked an official “to haul me up out of my wheelchair into a semi-standing position then hold me up with my face against the wall to prevent me from falling and stating that this constituted ‘walking’”.

She added: “This was not only clearly insensitive, demeaning, and frankly humiliating to myself as an athlete and as a disabled person, but yet again demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of my disability.”

She also says that the classification team were made aware that she was recovering from a concussion following an accident.

“Requiring an athlete recovering from a known brain injury to wait around for such extended periods of time… and then expecting them to check what is very complex classification paperwork in only one hour defies belief,” she wrote.

“It was wholly unfair to expect an athlete recovering from a brain injury to… make an informed decision about whether or not the information was accurate… I felt pressured into signing the forms just so I could leave as I felt so ill.

“I just feel hugely disappointed and let down by [WPS]. This is just so insensitive and hurtful to me on a personal level. I have always embraced the Paralympic movement and philosophy but my treatment during the last year has been arguably discriminatory by an organisation which is supposed to empower disabled people.”

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