Why Can't Australian Swimmers With Down Syndrome Compete in the Paralympics?

Australia's national Down syndrome swimming team has won four consecutive world championship titles, yet they couldn't qualify for next month's Paralympic Games in Rio.
August 29, 2016, 12:00am

In June, Australia's national Down syndrome swimming team won its fourth consecutive world championship title at the Down Syndrome World Swimming Championships, held in Italy. These swimmers are some of the world's most successful and dedicated athletes. Yet they were unable to qualify for next month's Paralympic Games in Rio.

Why? Well, as with anything to do with international sports competitions, it all comes down to regulations.


The history of intellectually-disabled athletes competing in the Paralympics is fraught. In contrast to the Special Olympics, the Paralympics has traditionally focused on athletes with physical disabilities. The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) only began allowing athletes with intellectual disabilities to start competing in 1996.

However, following a scandal in 2000 where members of the Spanish basketball squad pretended to have intellectual disabilities, the IPC banned intellectually disabled athletes. It wasn't until 2009 that intellectually disabled athletes were once again allowed to compete in the Paralympics—but now the criteria is far stricter than before.

And when it comes to Down syndrome athletes in particular, the question is even more complex. According to IPC regulations, Paralympic events are split into separate categories according to physical, visual, or intellectual impairment. Athletes with Down syndrome are relatively unique in the world of competitive sport because they face both intellectual and physical impairment.

So while Australia's national Down syndrome swimming team are technically able to compete in the Paralympics, they would be at a fundamental disadvantage against competitors who'd generally only face one form of impairment.

Many are calling for a dedicated class for Paralympic swimmers with Down syndrome to even the playing field (or pool, as it were). This would mean that, being typically of a shorter stature, these swimmers would not longer be at a physical disadvantage against able-bodied but intellectually impaired athletes.


Simon Cox, chair of the Down Syndrome Swimming Australia (DSSA), says the IPC could easily create such a category for Down syndrome swimmers. At present, there are 14 different classes in Paralympic swimming, spread across the physical, intellectual, and visual impairment categories. These include dedicated classes for people with cerebral palsy and leg amputations.

"We're talking the most common chromosomal defect in the world," Cox says. "There are so many Down syndrome athletes—it would make sense that they get their own category."

The DSSA, along with Down syndrome swimming committees from around the world, have been pushing the IPC for a Down syndrome-inclusive swimming event for years, to no avail. But now they're gaining traction, especially given the impressive athletic prowess of the Australian team.

"Most of them train seven sessions a week or more, plus gym sessions. They have coaches and training sessions, they're genuine athletes," Cox says. "Our swimmers—we sent 22 to the world championships—they are all serious athletes, many hold world records now."

Indeed, at the world championships, Australia's Down syndrome swimmers outperformed 31 other nations. And this after they were only able to attend the competition thanks to a crowdfunding campaign, which raised $300,000. As Cox notes, if these athletes were qualified Paralympians, the team would receive full government funding for these events from the Australian Sports Commission.

Plus, if their performance at the world championships is anything to go by, the swim team would contribute significantly to our national medal tally at the Paralympics, if they were allowed to compete.

"It's very frustrating because every Olympics allows new kinds of sports—but not new kinds of athletes," Cox says. "There's an huge cohort of disabled athletes who are excluded."

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