After winning 14 gold medals in the last three editions of the Paralympic Games, Daniel Dias ended his participation in Tokyo-2020 with only two individual medals, both bronze, and far from fighting for something better. Not that the Brazilian has significantly worsened his times, his old S5 class rivals have evolved or someone more talented has emerged. The performance is a reflection of contestable functional relegations of athletes from Italy, Spain, Ukraine and China, who took R$ 800 thousand and five gold medals from the Brazilian.
“I felt a lot in my skin. All this reclassification affected the number of medals I could win, what I could do”, said Daniel Dias, at a press conference in Tokyo. If it weren’t for the relegated athletes, the Brazilian would have won five gold medals. Each of them is worth a prize of R$ 160 thousand offered by the Brazilian Paralympic Committee (CPB).
In Paralympic sport, athletes compete against rivals with similar disabilities, just as in wrestling sports there is weight subdivision. In swimming there are three classes for the visually impaired, one for the intellectually disabled, and ten for the physically impaired. They all start with the letter S. The higher the number, the greater the functionality. Functional classification is carried out in a process that involves muscle shape tests, joint mobility and motor tests (carried out in water), among others.
Historically, this is a sensitive issue in the Paralympic movement, but the situation has been causing great discomfort since 2019 and that impacted the results in Tokyo. An example: the 50m backstroke in class S5. Daniel Dias won this event in London-2012 with a time of 34s99, then world record, and with 35s40 in Rio-2016. In Tokyo, it got a little worse, to 35s99, time that would be enough for gold in the two previous editions of the Paralympics. Still, it was only fifth.
All the athletes who got ahead of him, three Chinese and one Ukrainian, were in class S6 until the beginning of the Paralympic cycle and were relegated to compete against athletes with greater physical and motor restrictions. Tao Zheng, gold, came to compete in S7, was a Rio-2016 medalist in S6 and won the 50m backstroke with an incredible 31s42, four seconds less than the Brazilian’s gold time in 2016.
Chinese Lichao Wang, second place, and Ukrainian Yaroslav Semenenko, fourth, were also medalists at Rio-2016 in S6, a class in which Chinese Wang, bronze, also competed. All already had expressive results in a faster category and were placed to compete against slower athletes, even without an official change in the so-called “class profile”. What has changed is the understanding of the shortcomings of all these athletes.
This prevented any athlete who is historically from the S5 from reaching the podium in Tokyo. In all five individual events that he swam, Daniel Dias was the best among them, losing only to opponents who came from S6. It is also the case of the Italian Francesco Bocciardo (gold in the 100m freestyle) and the Spanish Antoni Ponce Bertran (silver in the 200m), both world multimedalists in the S6 and later relegated. Even Kazakh Siyazbek Daliyev, fifth in the 50m butterfly, who was ahead of Daniel Dias in this race, came from the highest class.
In this wave of relegations, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) also reclassified the Italian Antonio Fantin, who broke the world record for the 100m freestyle in S5 in 2019. In this case, there was no way to deny the error and go back. On his return to S6, Fantin won gold in the 100m with 1min3s, six seconds faster than the best of S5 in Tokyo. His mobility restrictions are so much lighter that he will compete in the S7 in the 50m freestyle.
“Swimming has evolved, the Paralympic sport has evolved, but the classification has not kept up with that. I have talked to many athletes. Many are stopping swimming because of the reclassification”, said Daniel Dias, pointing to the example of André Brasil, Brazilian owner of seven diamonds Paralympics who, in 2019, was disqualified. In other words: his disability no longer makes him able to compete in Paralympic events.
“We don’t understand how André Brasil, who went to three Paralympics, is not today considered a Paralympic athlete. His record is still there. If he is no longer a Paralympic, how can his record be worth it?”, he asked.
The revolt over reclassifications in Brazilian swimming has been huge since 2019, but Daniel had been refraining from making more incisive criticisms and had promised to speak after finishing his career. The issue is delicate because Brazil’s Paralympic swimming blames IPC President Andrew Parsons for the mess, while at the same time being grateful to him, who is the former president of the Brazilian Paralympic Committee (CPB).
“It’s a subject that needs to be talked about more. We see the classification as somewhat inconclusive, subjective, confusing. This I say because I’ve talked to a lot of athletes, and it’s sad to say that swimming has regressed in this sense, and we want let this go forward. I ask the IPC to look with enormous affection on this matter. It is necessary to listen to athletes, coaches, biomechanics, everyone involved in swimming,” demanded Daniel, in a speech that also has a political content, since he is a candidate to represent the athletes in the IPC.