The Paralympic Games, as often happens, is embroiled in another controversy over classification of competitors’ disabilities ahead of Wednesday’s Opening Ceremony. Into this swirling maelstrom sprints double world champion Georgina Hermitage, who tells Sue Mott she will just stand on the start-line and try and block everything out
This time last week Georgina Hermitage and her young daughter Tilly were determined to have an adventure. It was their last day together before the world record-breaking Paralympian had to pack for the Rio. Naturally, they were going to do something safe, low-key and injury-preventing. Not. So they were bowling down the A3 outside London on their way to a giant water park.
“We’re going to whizz down the shoots,” yelled Hermitage on her hands-free phone to overcome the traffic noise outside. “It’s sad to be saying goodbye, but I’m trying not to think about it. We’ll just have fun and then have naughty treats like a burger in McDonald’s.” She revised the statement hastily, maybe thinking that UK Athletics would be less than pleased. “I’m not going to have one. I’m just going to watch her.” She laughed.
It’s hard to imagine that carefree attitude surviving the trip to South America. An issue of mis-classification, as reported by the Sunday Times, has provoked huge controversy in the Team GB camp. At the heart of it lies an accusation that some athletes have been wrongly classified to boost medal prospects. One silver medallist from London 2012, Bethany Woodward, now retired, has accused UK Athletics of bringing in “people who are not like me in terms of disability”. She was a T37 athlete. (Paralympic athletes are classified from T32 – the most severe disability – to T38, the least.)
Georgina Hermitage is a T37 sprinter, such a formidable addition to the UKA team in the past couple of years that she has already won two World Championship gold medals and four more at the Europeans this June, breaking world records in the process. The inference is clear. While we know about the Paralympic bubble, that realm of seclusion peculiar to high-octane sports events where nothing matters except eating, sleeping and competing, it is unlikely that news of the fall-out will not seep through the wall of imperfect silence. How it affects her is anyone’s guess.
The GB Paralympic head coach, Paula Dunn, will resign her post after Rio, the parents of 2012 medal-winner Olivia Breen, a T38 athlete, are pursuing a legal route and UKA have threatened athletes with law suits if they make what they call “baseless allegations”. It’s a highly-distracting, toxic environment for Paralympians already contending with the idea of being part of an under-funded, ill-attended after-thought to the Olympics in Rio.
You get it. How impossible it must be to gauge that every athlete is competing against an opposition with exactly the same shade of disability as themselves. Yet how ironic that some Paralympic athletes, with all they have overcome, are being put in a position of not being disabled enough.
Hermitage, now 27, was a spectator at London 2012. Six months pregnant with Tilly at the time, she had to be dragged along to the Olympic Stadium by her husband, Ricky. But soaking up the atmosphere changed everything. It was the catalyst to resuming an athletic career she’d abandoned a decade previously when an unwitting coach had casually mentioned that she had cerebral palsy. She had no idea. Her mother, who had died when Hermitage was eight, had never told her.
For ten years she resisted the knowledge and embarked on a full panoply of teenage rebellions. Now she embraces the fact that she is a para-sportswomen. “What took me so bloody long?” is her take on the situation these days.
But the hemiplegia from which she suffers causes recurring weaknesses down the left-hand side of her body. For two years at the outset of her attempt to make the Paralympic team, she was thwarted by a series of injuries. Her body, unused to the stress of professional sport, broke down time after time.
It still happens. Following her quadruple gold performance at the IPC in June, she was forced to take another break. “I was advised to stop training for four weeks because I risked causing a stress fracture in my left foot. I don’t think anyone knew that I was only allowed to do cross-training. I didn’t race at the Anniversary Games in London and I only managed to run again at the start of August. Hopefully I haven’t lost my touch.”
That was enough to worry about. And the nerves. “Everyone keeps saying to me, ‘Oh, you must be so excited …’ to which the answer is, “No! It’s more like impending doom really. You work so long for something. Now it’s here – and I don’t want to do it. I’d rather be anywhere else. It’s pressure. I don’t like it. I’d much rather be unknown.”
She has decided to leave Tilly at home with Ricky to try and relieve the inevitable stresses. “We ummed and ahhed about it, but in the end decided it wasn’t worth the risk, the worry and the money. I didn’t think she would understand that she could only spend two twenty-minute visits in the Village with me, and that would have been more painful that leaving them both at home. I knew I’d be thinking, ‘Is he putting enough suntan lotion on her? Is he spraying enough mosquito repellent? …”
Surmounting all the individual worries was the blanket ban on all Russian athletes because of the depths of the doping scandal that surrounds them. “I’m really proud of the IPC for taking a hard line. It’s something that had to be done. Of course, you worry that people who are clean might be caught up in it, but you have to take a united stand and a lot of us respect that.
“When it came to the Olympics, the IOC made all the Federations responsible for their own decision about banning Russian athletes. I bet the public thought, ‘Oh, what a cop-out’. I think the IPC, which is tiny in comparison to the IOC, has more guts. Good on them.”
So apart from politics, absent-parenting and being powerfully terrified in the run-up to her first heat, what has she got to worry about? Only that the classification process upon which the whole integrity of the Paralympic movement relies may not be fit for purpose.
The fault, if that is true, lies squarely with the authorities. What can an individual athlete do? One thing only. “I know it sounds selfish,” she said. “But you’ve just got to stand on the start-line and try and block everything out.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sue Mott is an award-winning sport journalist who has worked on radio, TV and the written press. Sue’s latest articles