A Paralympic athlete has been accused of exaggerating symptoms, a BBC investigation has found.
Amanda Reid (formerly Fowler) won a silver medal in cycling for Australia at the Rio Games in 2016.
Her former coach and other athletes who spoke to the BBC’s File on 4 said they were highly suspicious about the changes in her condition.
Reid and her mother did not respond to detailed BBC questions about the allegations.
The Australian Paralympic Committee strongly denied any knowledge of misconduct relating to classification. It said Reid had multiple disabilities and had undergone the same rigorous medical testing as other athletes.
‘No sign of physical impairment’
Reid, who was then known as Amanda Fowler, was classified as an intellectually disabled swimmer when she competed at the London Paralympics in 2012, finishing fifth.
Her new coach after the London Games, Simon Watkins, said Amanda’s mother told him that she thought her daughter may have a rare genetic disorder with symptoms similar to cerebral palsy.
She enquired whether she might be able to change her classification to a physical disability.
He said he was emphatic about his own opinion: “She doesn’t have a physical disability. So there isn’t a way that you get a classification for physical disability. There isn’t one present.”
A fellow swimmer who competed at the same time and who doesn’t want to reveal her name agreed.
“There was absolutely no sign of any sort of physical impairment. She was quite boisterous and used her arms quite a bit for emphasis when she was talking,” she said.
How are disabled athletes assessed?
Disabled athletes are classified by a panel of volunteers based on how their impairment affects their performance.
They are assessed by a technical classifier, often a coach in that sport, and a medical classifier, such as a physiotherapist.
Part of their role is trying to spot intentional misrepresentation, where an athlete might exaggerate the level of their disability so they could be placed in a category where it would be easier for them to win medals.
At a training camp a few months later, Simon Watkins said an official from the governing body Swimming Australia approached him and expressed concerns that at a physiotherapy session Reid “was trying to put on an issue with the leg and foot, which we don’t believe is a real issue”.
Simon Watkins stopped coaching Reid in 2014. When he saw her again in 2015, she was competing as a visually impaired athlete.
He said he was amazed as he had never seen any evidence of this before.
“This is a girl who had been driving a car. So now to be with a white stick… was quite unbelievable.”
His doubts were shared by the fellow swimmer. She said that in her view, Reid used her white stick as if it were a prop. She would also maintain direct eye contact for long periods and then “would suddenly almost put on an act as if she couldn’t see you and wouldn’t be able to meet your eyes directly”.
The swimmer says she didn’t bother to challenge this as she had come across other athletes she thought were exaggerating symptoms: “It’s almost accepted [that] that’s just the way it is and there’s almost no point challenging it.”
Simon Watkins wrote to Swimming Australia to express his concerns. He told them he believed Amanda Reid’s family had made a joke of the classification system and “the integrity of the system in Australia… and makes the country a joke on the international scene”.
Swimming Australia told him the classification for Amanda was ongoing. The BBC asked Swimming Australia about this but they did not reply.
Reid dropped out of competitive swimming.
At the Rio Olympics in 2016 Reid competed as a cyclist in a new classification for physically disabled athletes.
In interviews she said she had cerebral palsy. She won a silver medal in the sprint and at the medal ceremony now walked with a turned-in foot and holding her arm, seemingly with cerebral palsy-like symptoms.
An athlete in the Australian team said he and others were shocked at the change in her physical appearance and there was scepticism about her success: “Going from not medalling in swimming to being a silver medallist at a Para Games is… virtually unheard of, so I guess there’s always going to be a dubious aspect to that.”
Cycling’s governing body, the UCI, said Amanda Reid had followed the normal classification process. They said they would assess whether they needed to investigate the allegations about her classification.
File on 4 has obtained video footage from 2017 showing Amanda Reid walking to her car with no apparent physical disabilities and getting into the driver’s seat.
Robert Shepherd, a former international classifier, watched the footage.
“It is very unlikely that you’ll make that degree of improvement… The presentation that we’ve seen on these videos makes me doubt that she is of a level that would give her the classification she’s got.”
Is it possible to make such rapid improvements with cerebral palsy?
Richard Grunewald, clinical director of neuroscience at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said: “The damage of cerebral palsy is permanent brain damage, it doesn’t come and go.”
The Australian Paralympic Committee said Amanda Reid has multiple impairments and can therefore be classified with a physical, visual or intellectual disability.
They said such cases are not unique and said that her classifications in both cycling and swimming “have followed the international classification rules”.
Before the Rio Paralympics, the International Paralympic Committee investigated 80 athletes for intentional misrepresentation, but none were found to have deliberately exaggerated their disability.
All swimmers are now being reclassified, with the tests in the water being made more rigorous and objective. Some track athletes are also facing reclassification.
File on 4 has learned that a British Paralympic medallist, who has not been named publicly, is currently being investigated for possible cheating.
As part of their evidence gathering, investigators have spoken to former British Paralympic gold medal swimmer Marc Woods, who has voiced his concerns about classification.
He told File on 4 he is worried that young, vulnerable athletes are being manipulated by older coaches to think they are more disabled than they actually are, which he describes as a form of grooming.
“It’s a word that sends shivers down my spine,” he said. “But I think that there can be a process where coaches are using a dialogue, which will eventually lead to an athlete thinking they maybe should be categorised differently.”
Ian Braid used to run the British Athletes Commission, which represents 1,500 elite British athletes. He said during his four years in charge he heard growing concerns about abuse of the classification system, which led to a particularly bizarre incident.
“I was told that in one team event members of the British squad were cheering for another nation, another nation’s athlete, because they believed that a member of their [own] team was in the wrong class,” he said.
The British Paralympic Association (BPA) introduced a new athlete classification code earlier this year. The BPA’s chief executive Tim Hollingsworth doesn’t think cheating is happening on any meaningful scale.
“I don’t see that from the conversations we have with governing bodies,” he says. “I don’t see that from the conversations that we have with athletes.”