A BLIND athlete from Cork claims she’s being discriminated against because of her disability after she was left out of an Irish Athletics team.
Youghal’s Sinead Kane wasn’t chosen to take part in the upcoming Ultrarunning World Championship 24-hour race despite reaching all the qualification standards.
She’s now “exploring her options” with a solicitor, ahead of the International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU) event which will take place on October 26-27 in Albi, France.
To reach the standard to be selected to compete for Ireland, an athlete must meet three criteria.
They must have covered 200km in an IAU 24 hour race — Sinead ran 204.5km in a race this year.
Secondly, the athlete must be performing well, and thirdly, must be a member of a club.
Having met the standards, Sinead was certain she would be chosen by Athletics Ireland to represent her country on the international stage.
However, she’s since learned she cannot take part in the race because the IAU has deemed her guide runner to be ‘outside assistance’ under rule 144.
“The IAU said that for me to have a guide runner would be an unfair advantage over fully sighted runners,” Sinead says.
But according to Sinead, there is no advantage in using a guide runner.
“No athlete in the championships would elect to run blindfolded with a guide giving instructions for 24 hours.
“Drug cheats are welcome to take part after a ban, but there are no plans, ever, for a blind athlete.”
Hamish Adams, CEO of Athletics Ireland, says that they’d sought clarification in advance of their team selection for the World Championship race about Sinead.
“Unfortunately she can’t compete as a team member and scorer for the team because she is deemed to be assisted by her guide under the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) rules,” he says.
This means that if she were to run as part of the Irish team with her guide, she would be disqualified and her results discounted, therefore hindering the overall team results.
The IAU comes under the umbrella of the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) and is governed by its rules.
However, Sinead says she has reason to believe that not all the rules are being used in this specific scenario.
Another example of ‘outside assistance’ used by athletes in races is listening to music on headphones.
However, she says that athletes will be permitted to use headphones throughout the 24-hour race.
“The IAU have decided in their own rules that they’re going to bend that rule because of the duration of the race, but yet they’re not discounting me having a guide runner,” Sinead says.
Sinead also argues that her guide is not a pace-maker: “A pacer is a person who runs in front of you and sets a pace.
“A guide runner runs, not in front of you, he runs beside you and he gives me verbal instructions.
“My guide runner is merely a visual version of what fully sighted runners are doing with their eyes.
“They’re using visual guides by looking at the clock, by looking at the ground to see their way around.”
Currently there isn’t any race like this specifically for para-athletes.
Hamish Adams says: “That’s part of the problem. Obviously ultra-running is a very small sport at this point in time.
“There isn’t the para-equivalent of this race and under the rules of the IAAF a guided runner is deemed to be assisted so that’s the challenge in terms of Sinead being allowed to compete as a team member.”
Sinead is now exhausting every possibility with her solicitor — while the deadline for race entries has passed.
“I achieved the same standard as sighted runners.
“There is an acknowledgment of no health and safety concerns because I can take part in the open race run concurrently, I’m just not allowed to represent my country,” Sinead says.
The open race is run alongside the World Championships in which 100 additional athletes with no qualification standards can enter.
However, having earned the right to represent her country after getting the qualification distance, “Why would I degrade myself to do that?” Sinead asks.
“I feel Athletics Ireland should have originally selected me and fought it out with the IAU,” she says, while Hamish Adams says that Athletics Ireland has made a case to both the IAAF and the IAU.
However, he believes that changing a rule would prove difficult in that a motion would have to go to congress.
“There’d be a lot of hoops to jump through to change a rule in World Athletics but it does have implications in terms of the IAAF and the Paralympic bodies as well.
“It’s complicated, it’s not just black and white,” he says.
“We have been engaging regularly with Sinead and her representatives, and I think that we’ve all acted in a responsible and positive manner.
“But we appreciate the difficulties of the uniqueness of the situation,” Mr Adams added.
East Cork TD Pat Buckley this week raised Sinead’s case in the Dáil.
The Sinn Féin representative said he has contacted both the Sports Minister and Minister for Disability on the issue.
“This is about discrimination because of a disability,” Deputy Buckley says.
Sports Minister Shane Ross responded in writing to Deputy Buckley’s representations by saying that Athletics Ireland is an independent, autonomous body and are therefore responsible for their own governance procedures and competition rules for their sports.
“I have no role in the day-to-day operations of Athletics Ireland or any of the sporting bodies and it would be inappropriate for me to intervene,” he added.
Sinead was hopeful of a meeting with Minister Ross, however, she says the response hasn’t been what she was hoping for.
“This isn’t an issue that just affects me, this affects any blind or visually impaired athlete who gets to the international standard to be able to compete,” Sinead says.