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Michael Johnson urges Paralympic movement to make classifications clear and fair

Michael Johnson urges Paralympic movement to make classifications clear and fair
© Reuters
Four-time Olympic champion Michael Johnson is an avid supporter of the Paralympics.

Michael Johnson believes Paralympic sport must step up its attempts to find a new classification system that is easier for a growing audience to understand.

Global viewing figures for the Rio 2016 Paralympics topped four billion, according to Statista, and could increase for Tokyo 2020, which gets under way on August 24.

Four-time Olympic champion Johnson is an avid supporter of the Paralympic movement, but says it must meet the demand for a clearer and fairer way of grouping athletes together.

The 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro attracted a global audience of over 4.1 billion people, according to Statista
The 2016 Paralympics in Rio attracted a global audience of over 4.1billion people, according to Statista (Adam Davy/PA)

The 53-year-old American told the PA news agency: "That's a view which is shared by a lot of people, myself included.

"I think it's a challenge, and I don't think it's any secret, a challenge that Paralympic sport will have to deal with as people start to move away from just appreciating and supporting out of sympathy.

"When people have watched and start to say, 'Hey, this is good sport', which is what Paralympic athletes want to see and be recognised as, and I'm sure that's what the Paralympic movement wants – to be recognised just as competitive sport.

"As people move more towards viewing it from that perspective, there's going to need to be more work done by the Paralympic movement to ensure that the classifications are clear to people, so they understand it."

Johnson urged any viewers who might be put off by the confusion to stick with it, but said the classification system must also be made fairer for the athletes themselves.

"They must make it a more level playing field, and I know that's something that they're dealing with now and that's not going to be easy," he said.

"That's going to be a huge undertaking. So I would say to people who watch and have that frustration to be patient.

"But at the same time, fans of Paralympic sport and the athletes will have to continue to demand improvement continues around the classification, so that ultimately it's as fair as it can possibly be.

Ellie Simmonds, winner of five Paralympic gold medals, is the first guest on Channel 4's 'Michael Johnson Meets...'
Ellie Simmonds, winner of five Paralympic gold medals, is the first guest on Channel 4's 'Michael Johnson Meets...' (Steve Parsons/PA)

"How fair and how level you can get given that everyone's disability is different, I'm not sure.

"If you compare it to Olympic sport, everyone's talent is different too, so you know, there's probably an argument that, well everybody's different.

"But I think that at a point you have to create some boundaries and classifications that make sense to people."

Johnson has been closely involved in the development of Paralympic athletes since founding his Texas-based sports performance company, Michael Johnson Performance, in 2007.

He has gained even greater insight by hosting Channel 4's new  Paralympic series, 'Michael Johnson Meets...'.

Over four episodes, the eight-time world champion sits down with top ParalympicGB athletes Ellie Simmonds, Will Bayley, Hannah Cockroft and Kadeena Cox to discuss their life journeys.

The first two episodes, featuring Simmonds and then Cox, will be screened on Saturday (4.35pm) with the final two on August 21.

"When we first started talking about this series I was intrigued to dig a little more in depth to some of these athletes' amazing stories," said Johnson, who put his recovery from a stroke suffered in 2018 down to an "Olympic attitude".

Olympic all-time great Michael Johnson dominated the 200 and 400 metre sprints during a glittering track career
Olympic all-time great Michael Johnson dominated the 200 and 400m sprints during a glittering track career (John Giles/PA)

"Paralympic athletes have incredible stories of overcoming the natural challenges of their disability, to then go on and not just overcome them, but become world-class athletes.

"I wanted to understand how they achieved success and compare that to how I achieved success.

"I'm in awe of some of those health and life-threatening challenges that some of them have had to overcome.

"I've had to do that myself, having suffered a stroke three years ago, but in terms of comparisons to my situation with these athletes, I couldn't have imagined when I was an athlete what they have gone through."

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