Oksana Masters reflects on record-breaking Paralympics, and a huge problem

Paralympics 2022 in Beijing - Biathlon
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Oksana Masters did not expect to win a medal in all seven of her events at the Paralympics. She had no idea going into the Games that she could break the U.S. record for career Winter Paralympic medals, which she did with her 14th in the closing relay.

“I’m still speechless,” she said after the Games ended two weeks ago. “I’m still soaking it in.”

Masters, a cross-country skier and biathlete, also addressed what she called a huge problem in the Paralympic Movement that she believed was present at the Games: misclassification, which other Paralympic stars expressed concern about in other competitions, notably in swimming.

Paralympic athletes are classified according to their degree of impairment, similar to weight classes in wrestling or boxing. Trying to ensure competitive parity based on levels of impairment, across a field of thousands of athletes from dozens of countries across the world – is an imperfect science. The International Paralympic Committee recognizes that in stating the purpose of classification is “to minimize” the impact of impairments on competition.

Misclassification, where an athlete is placed by an expert panel in the wrong category unintentionally or because of deliberate misrepresentation, can result in an uneven playing field.

In cross-country skiing and biathlon, athletes compete in one of three categories: visually impaired, standing and sitting (Masters’ category). Within each category, athletes can be further separated by factored time, a percentage that can adjust race times of competitors based on level of impairment.

In Masters’ last two of three individual cross-country skiing races in China, finish-area microphones picked up her questioning the fairness of the competition. She clarified last week that her comments were about potential misclassification, though she did not make a specific allegation against an athlete or country.

“Misclassification had a massive, massive impact on athletes, not just including myself and Team USA, but across all different classes [in Beijing],” she said in an interview. “It has been an issue for a very long time, and it’s not being addressed.”

The U.S. has not lodged a formal complaint regarding the Beijing Games competition.

A spokesperson for the IPC and World Para Nordic Skiing said they do not disclose details about athlete classification and “treat all allegations of intentional misrepresentation and other misconduct very seriously.”

“Each allegation is looked into and, where merited, appropriate action is taken,” the spokesperson said in an email. “In the event that World Para Nordic Skiing has reason to believe that an athlete under its jurisdiction has been allocated an incorrect sport class, it can make an International Federation Protest in respect of that athlete at any time.”

In all three of her individual cross-country skiing races, Masters earned a silver medal behind China’s Yang Hongqiong. Masters did not name any specific athlete that she believed was misclassified. She did say that she had never heard of Yang before the Games.

IPC records show that Yang raced at competitions in China starting in January 2020. She debuted internationally this past December in a pair of races in Finland, placing 11th and 16th, followed by her three golds at the Paralympics. Many Chinese athletes across sports did not compete internationally in the 2020-21 season due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Masters was surprised by the host nation’s overall performance — 61 medals, including 30 in biathlon or cross-country skiing, after earning one medal in all of its five previous Winter Games combined.

“I don’t want to take away from the fact that [Yang] also has three gold medals and that China did perform really well,” Masters said. “I think she’s a great athlete, because you have to put the work into it, too.”

Masters had the fastest time in all three of her races with Yang, if one didn’t take into account factored time. Yang’s factor according to her level of impairment was 86 percent of her time, the smallest percentage of the field in all three finals, meaning her raw time gets the biggest reduction.

Masters’ factor based on her level of impairment was 100 percent, meaning her time doesn’t get reduced.

Masters said multiple skiers with a significant factored percentage had a faster raw time (not including the factor) than some other skiers with the maximum 100 percent, which she called “mind-blowing.”

Masters, who was born in Ukraine, also said officials did not allow her to compete with a quarter-sized, heart-shaped sticker with the Ukrainian flag colors on it. They did not give her a reason. An IPC spokesperson did not address it in an email response to a series of questions regarding Masters’ comments about the Games.

“I wanted to race for something that was bigger than myself and to help where I came from and bring awareness to it,” she said. “I was competing for two countries, and it was devastating to see that stickers were constantly being covered up and taken off, and I wasn’t allowed to show my support.”

Overall, Masters emphasized the work of those around her, notably six ski wax technicians, including one nicknamed “D Money,” who also deserve credit for her three golds and four silvers.

She said these Games brought the greatest highlight of her decade-long Paralympic career so far: having teammates whom she helped recruit to the sport.

Masters, 32, hopes to compete in a fourth Summer Games in Paris (in cycling) and a fourth Winter Games in Italy in 2026, again in biathlon and cross-country skiing.

“I’m so excited for Paris, especially because as a cyclist and a hand cyclist, that is such a huge community and a big sport there,” she said. “And I can’t wait to hopefully compete under no more COVID times.”

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