How does the Paralympic classification system work?
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How does the Paralympic classification system work?

Sixteen days after the closing ceremony of the Olympics, Japan is hosting its next global sporting event as the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games get underway.

Like the Olympics, the Paralympics are taking place a year after originally planned because of the delay caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), there are 2550 male and 1853 female athletes taking part in Games, which run from August 24 to September 5.

“Classification is the cornerstone of the Paralympic Movement, it determines which athletes are eligible to compete in a sport and how athletes are grouped together for competition,’ says the IPC.

What makes a Paralympian?

Paralympians are grouped together by the “degree of activity limitation resulting from the impairment,” according to the IPC.

As different sports require different physical demands, the IPC says the classification process “aims to minimize the impact of the impairment on athletes’ performance” so that their athletic prowess is showcased.

The IPC’s process of “Athlete Evaluation” seeks to answer three questions.

Does the athlete have a permanent ‘Eligible Impairment’?

Firstly, it has to be deemed whether the athlete has an “underlying health condition,” which has led to a “permanent Eligible Impairment.” The assessment is carried out by the International Sport Federation governing body which oversees each individual sport.

There are 10 different impairment types. They are often divided into three groups of impairment: physical (impaired muscle power, impaired range of movement, limb deficiency, leg length difference, hypertonia, ataxia, athetosis and short stature), vision and intellectual.

Once it has been assessed whether or not an athlete has an eligible impairment, it then has to be determined whether the athlete meets the “Minimum Impairment Criteria.” Each sport’s classification has rules to “describe how severe an Eligible Impairment must be for an athlete to be considered eligible to compete.”

Examples of the minimum impairment criteria include maximum height defined for athletes with short stature or a level of amputation defined for athletes with limb deficiency. The criteria is based on scientific research.

What do the classes in each sport mean?

The final step is deciding an athlete’s sports class.

While sports such as para ice hockey and para weightlifting have just one class, others have many different classes to include all 10 eligible impairments and with many different disciplines. In running and jumping events there are 20 classes.

The class groups athletes with similar athletic limitations so that they can compete to similar levels, but does not necessarily have to solely group athletes with the same eligible impairment.

“If different impairments cause similar activity limitation, athletes with these impairments are allowed to compete together,” the IPC said.

Because some impairments progress over time, athletes can change classification over time.

The IPC’s Chief Brand and Communications Officer Craig Spence said determining athlete classification ahead of the Games has been a “real challenge” because of the pandemic.

“The international federations have done lots of great work in the last six months in order to classify the athletes in advance.”

Spence says they are working to classify all athletes scheduled to compete at this year’s Games, but the lack of competition since the start of the pandemic has made the job harder for the IPC.

“They’ve been unable to attend a competition in the last 20 months where classification has been offered,” he explained.

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“We started classification yesterday in athletics and we will continue in athletics and wheelchair rugby,” Spence added.

“Classification is under way and we hope to have all the athletes classified ahead of their competition dates.

“The classification process is done by the rule book despite the pandemic. You’re put in a class and then you’re observed in competition to ensure you’re in the correct class.”

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