Interview with Joey Johnson: “If changes have to be made, they should be made post-Tokyo.”

The IPC/IWBF Paralympic classification code debate has been a topic of discussion that has had many wheelchair basketball athletes and fans searching for answers. Rollt.’s Dylan Cummings recently spoke with 3x Paralympic gold medalist and all-round legend of the game, Joey Johnson to get his thoughts on the situation.


As a former player with a ‘minimal disability’ impairment, what do you make of the whole IPC/IWBF classification code situation?

“First off, I believe that the IPC has the right to pick and choose what sports they want as part of ‘their games.’ They are they organizers and I believe they should have final say on what happens at the games. But with that being said, I feel passionately that wheelchair basketball has a place and deserves to be at the games.

I was disappointed to learn of IPC’s decision to remove wheelchair basketball from the Paris 2024 games and possibly for the Tokyo 2020 games. The part that disappointed me the most was the timing. I know that some will say that IWBF had years to fall into line, but I have some issues with that as well. The people that this decision affects the most are the athletes, and I believe that most, if not all of the athletes were unaware about this decision. Now to spring this on athletes, who have been training for years, 200 days out of the games, is just wrong. I don’t care if it is the IPC or IWBF that is in the wrong, this is affecting all the athletes who are trying to focus on their training in preparation for the games. For some it is a distraction in not knowing if they will be allowed to compete and for others it is a distraction in waiting to see how much their teams will be changed.”


What’s the mood like in Canada about the situation?

“Here in Canada we have allowed athletes with ‘minimal disabilities’ as well as able-bodied athletes to compete in our competitions for years. I know that for myself, having AB’s compete gave me an opportunity to train and compete with a larger number of athletes. Growing up in a more rural location meant we just didn’t have the number of ‘disabled’ athletes to form a team, let alone two teams to compete against each other.  But with the addition of AB’s it gave us that opportunity. The beauty of our sport is that once you sit in that chair, you are on an equal playing field. With a proper classification system, you are only adding to the sport.”


Do you think the IPC’s classification code damages the integrity of the inclusive nature of wheelchair basketball?

“I do believe that IPC’s classification code is a loosely worded statement. IWBF has a classification system that they believe works for the sport. Every athlete has to be classified by their classifiers before being allowed to compete at international events. I feel the best part of our game is how inclusive it is. When I was an eight-year-old boy I was told that I couldn’t compete in able-bodied sport anymore. Wheelchair basketball gave me a platform where I could continue to compete with my siblings and all my friends I grew up with.”


Do you think the IPC should recognize the ‘minimal disability’ impairment? If so, why?

“I would like the IPC to recognize the ‘minimal disability’ category. If these athletes don’t have an opportunity to compete at a high-performance level in able-bodied sports, (due to some physical limitations) then I feel they should have the opportunity to compete in adaptive sports. For all the people who are against it because they feel that these ‘minimally disabled’ athletes are coming in and taking the spot of someone with a ‘disability’, I disagree. As I said before, all these athletes have gone through the classification process and have been deemed eligible to play the game. I do believe that within the IWBF there are some athletes that have been misclassed. I think that some athletes are classed too low and others are classed too high. But that is an internal problem that can be cleaned up over time. I don’t feel there are any athletes competing right now that should not be allowed to compete.”


What do you make of the viewpoints put forward by the IPC and IWBF?

“I am not sure what has been said or talked about between IWBF and IPC as I have not been a part of that process. But as I stated before, I am disappointed with the timing of it all. I am sure there is enough blame to go around, but what I feel is being overlooked, is the impact that this decision will have on all the athletes that are playing the game.”


How do you think the game will be impacted globally if a lot of 4.0 and 4.5 players are deemed as ineligible for the Paralympic Games by the IPC?

“If some athletes are deemed ineligible for the Tokyo 2020 games, it will have a huge impact on the game.  All of the countries (with the exception of the African nations) have already qualified for the games, with some of these athletes contributing to their success. Now to have those athletes removed from those teams isn’t fair. Not only for the athletes directly affected and the teams they are competing for, but also for all the teams in the qualifying rounds that were defeated by these teams. If these athletes are removed, does that mean we have to replay all the zonal qualifying tournaments? Who is going to pay for that?  Also, some of these athletes receive funding to play the sport, that could be directly affected by this decision. Not only the athletes, but national federation funding is tied into the successes they have at tournaments. In removing these athletes, how does that affect the funding of the athletes and their national federations?”


In an ideal world, what compromise would you like to see the IPC and IWBF agree on?

“In a perfect world I believe they have to leave Tokyo the way it is for now. If changes have to be made, they should be made post-Tokyo. But the way I view the sport is that it is exactly that, a sport. No different than if you want to play soccer, you grab a ball and go play. If you want to play ice hockey, you grab a stick and skates. If you want to play wheelchair basketball, you grab a chair and a ball. I feel that it is a sport that should be enjoyed by all.”


Thanks for your time Joey!


Rollt. would like to thank Joey Johnson for the interview.


Joey Johnson Profile

Date of Birth: 26/07/1975 (aged 44)

Hometown: Winnipeg, Manitoba

Started playing: 1984

Retired: 2012

Canada senior debut: 1995 Americas Cup

Classification: 4.5

Disability: Legg-Calvé-Perthes Disease (LCPD)

Former Clubs:

_Winnipeg Thunder, CAN (1984-94, 2001-03)

_University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, USA (1994-01)

_Wollongong Roller Hawks, AUS (2001-03)

_Milwaukee Wheelchair Bucks, USA (2002-03)

_RSV Lahn-Dill, GER (2003-12)

Career Highlights:

_All the great people of I have met over the world

_1997 U23 World Championships – Gold (Canada)

_2000 Paralympic Games – Sydney, Australia – Gold (Canada)

_2004 Paralympic Games – Athens, Greece – Gold (Canada)

_2006 World Championships – Amsterdam, Netherlands – Gold (Canada)

_2012 Champions Cup – Gold (RSV Lahn-Dill)

_2012 Paralympic Games – London, GB – Gold (Canada)

_Manitoba Basketball Hall of Fame 2013

_US Collegiate Hall of Fame 2015

_Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame 2016

_Canadian Paralympic Hall of Fame 2019


Interview: Dylan Cummings | Photo: Armin Diekmann

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