Classification - Fair and equal competition
Challenging the interests of para-sport is the threat of one sided and predictable competition, in which the least impaired athlete always wins. To prevent this, para-athletes are placed in categories for competition based on their impairment, these are called sport classes. The IPC classification system determines which athletes are eligible to compete in a sport and how athletes are grouped together for competition. This, to a certain extent, is similar to grouping athletes by age, gender or weight.
In para-sport, athletes are grouped by the degree of activity limitation resulting from the impairment. Different sports require athletes to perform different activities, such as: sprinting, propelling a wheelchair, rowing and shooting. As sports require different activities, the impact of the impairment on each sport also differs. Therefore, for classification to minimise the impact of impairment on sport performance, classification must be sport specific.
Three steps of Classification
Athletes are classified by classifiers, who work together in a classification panel of two or three. They are trained and certified by the International Federation. When evaluating an athlete, the classification panels always consider three questions, which are answered through the process of athlete evaluation:
1. Does the athlete have an eligible impairment for this sport?
2. Does the athlete’s eligible impairment meet the minimum disability criteria of the sport?
3. Which sport class describes the athlete’s activity limitation most accurately?
1. Eligible Impairment
The first step in disability sport classification is to determine if the athlete has an eligible impairment.
The Paralympic Movement offers sport opportunities for athletes that have an impairment that belongs to one of the ten eligible impairment types identified in the “Policy on Eligible Impairments in the Paralympic Movement.” This is found under section 2 chapter 3.13 of the IPC Handbook
This is a brief description of the 10 eligible impairment types:
Impaired muscle power: Reduced force generated by muscles or muscle groups, such as muscles of one limb or the lower half of the body, as caused, for example, by spinal cord injuries, spina bifida or polio
Impaired passive range of movement: Range of movement in one or more joints is reduced permanently, for example due to arthrogryposis. Hypermobility of joints, joint instability, and acute conditions, such as arthritis, are not considered eligible impairments.
Limb deficiency: Total or partial absence of bones or joints as a consequence of trauma (e.g. car accident), illness (e.g. bone cancer) or congenital limb deficiency (e.g. dysmelia).
Leg length difference: Bone shortening in one leg due to congenital deficiency or trauma.
Short stature: Reduced standing height due to abnormal dimensions of bones of upper and lower limbs or trunk, for example due to achondroplasia or growth hormone dysfunction.
Hypertonia: Abnormal increase in muscle tension and a reduced ability of a muscle to stretch, due to a neurological condition, such as cerebral palsy, brain injury or multiple sclerosis.
Ataxia: Lack of co-ordination of muscle movements due to a neurological condition, such as cerebral palsy, brain injury or multiple sclerosis.
Athetosis: Generally characterised by unbalanced, involuntary movements and a difficulty in maintaining a symmetrical posture, due to a neurological condition, such as cerebral palsy, brain injury or multiple sclerosis.
Visual impairment: Vision is impacted by either an impairment of the eye structure, optical nerves or optical pathways, or the visual cortex.
Intellectual Impairment: A limitation in intellectual functioning and adaptive behaviour as expressed in conceptual, social and practical adaptive skills, which originates before the age of 18.
The Paralympic Movement adopted the definitions for the eligible impairment types as described in the World Health Organization International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (2001, World Health Organization, Geneva)
Each Paralympic sport defines for which impairment groups they provide sporting opportunities in their classification rules. While some sports include athletes of all impairment types (e.g. athletics, swimming), other sports are specific to one impairment type (e.g. goalball) or a selection of impairment types (e.g. equestrian, cycling).
The presence and permanency of one of the sport’s eligible impairments is a prerequisite to participate, but not the sole criterion.
2. Minimum disability criteria
Each sport’s Paralympic classification rules describe how severe an eligible impairment must be for an athlete to be considered eligible. These criteria are referred to as minimum disability criteria.
Examples of minimum disability criteria could be a maximum height for short stature, or a level of amputation for athletes with limb deficiency.
Minimum disability criteria should be defined on the basis of scientific research, which assesses the impact of impairments on the sport’s activities. In this, it can be guaranteed that an impairment impacts on performance in a certain sport. The minimum disability criteria is sport specific, because the activities are different.
As a consequence, an athlete may meet the criteria in one sport, but may not meet the criteria in another. If an athlete is not eligible to compete in a sport, this does not question the presence of a genuine impairment. It is a sport ruling.
3. Sport class
If an athlete is eligible for a sport, the classification panel will assess which sport class the athlete will compete in. A sport class groups athletes with a similar activity limitation together for competition, so that they can compete equitably.
This again means that sport classes are different by sport. It also means that a sport class does not necessarily comprise athletes with the same impairment. If different impairments cause similar activity limitation, athletes with these impairments are allowed to compete together. This is why in athletics wheelchair racing events, you will see athletes with paraplegia and leg amputations racing together.
There are some sports that only have one sport class (e.g. Para ice hockey or Para powerlifting). On the other hand, due to the different disciplines (running, jumping, throwing events) and because the sport includes athletes of all 10 eligible impairments, World Para Athletics has 52 sport classes.
A sport class can only be allocated through athlete evaluation by a classification panel. Athlete evaluation takes place before sport competitions. In some sports, athletes might, in addition, be observed in competition.
Athlete evaluation is conducted by classification panels, comprised of two or three classifiers. See Training for further detail.
Due to the progressive nature of some impairments and their impact on certain activities, athletes are sometimes classified a number of times throughout their career. Also, when the medical condition of an athlete changes, athletes need to inform the sport and ask for re-assessment.