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Discus farce prompts points pow-wow at Paralympics

The final of the women’s discus (F35-36) at the London Paralympic Games on Sunday (AEST) raised a question that doesn’t normally comes up once a sporting contest is over: “So, who won?” Ukrainian F35 thrower…

Mariia Pomazan was stripped of her gold medal following an Australian protest. EPA/Gerry Penny

The final of the women’s discus (F35-36) at the London Paralympic Games on Sunday (AEST) raised a question that doesn’t normally comes up once a sporting contest is over:

“So, who won?”

Ukrainian F35 thrower Mariia Pomazan was crowned as the winner of the event, having thrown a world record of 30.12m. China’s Qing Wu, a F36 thrower, was awarded second place with a throw of 28.01m (also a world record); and Jiongyu Bao was awarded the bronze.

But after a protest was lodged by the Australian team, the placings were reordered, including those of the medal winners.

So why did this happen?

Well, we first need to understand that some athletics field events (including shot put, discus, javelin and long jump) combine athletes from different classifications. The discus event in question featured athletes from the F35 and F36 classes – both for athletes with cerebral palsy – all competing for the one set of medals.

In combined events such as these, there needs to be a system to level the playing field, to ensure those athletes less disabled by their impairment (in this case the F35) don’t have an unfair advantage.

The method currently used is called the Raza points system. In it, a mathematical formula is applied to each athlete’s throw or jump distance to calculate a point score. To quote from the United Kingdom Athletics website, the goal of the Raza system is to:

Enable direct comparison of performances, independent of classification or other event specific criteria.

Raza uses data from Paralympic Games and World Championships from 2000 onwards in conjunction with the International Paralympic Committee’s (IPCs) world rankings from 2004 to map trends for every single class.

A statistical model (which uses something called the Gompertz function) was applied to all classes and provides a point score based on previous comparative performances.

The Raza system aims to be sufficiently robust so as to provide a score in the event that a new world record is achieved in any given class (as was the case in the F35/36 event). The system also takes into account the population size of each class, set against the available performance data.

The problem in the case of the F35/36 discus event was that the organisers did not use the most up-to-date Raza data, meaning the point values given to each of the competitors were inaccurate.

Following the protest, the athletes' performances were processed using the most up-to-date Raza data, changing the overall standings in the event and prompting a second medal ceremony.

Qing Wu from China was awarded the gold, the original gold medallist Mariia Pomazan was awarded silver and Australian Kath Proudfoot, who originally finished fifth, was given the bronze.

But the drama didn’t stop there. The IPC decided Pomazan would be allowed to hold on to her gold medal, meaning two gold medals and one bronze were awarded for the event. But while she was able to keep the gold medal, Pomazan’s gold wouldn’t count toward the Ukraine’s medal tally.

That was Monday. Just last night (AEST), the IPC ruled that Pomazan would have to hand her gold medal back after the governing body failed to “find a solution [that was suitable for] both the Chinese and the Ukrainians”.

Although remarkably messy I think this experience helps us understand the complexities of creating rules to support equity. Australian officials brought the anomaly to the attention of the Games’ organisers and in doing so, I believe, helped develop the robustness of the system, particularly when Raza coefficients are used.