How do Para sports ensure there is a level playing field between athletes with different impairments?
Para sport, like all other sport uses a classification system to structure its competition, ensuring a fair and level playing field. In judo athletes are put in weight classes, in football men and women compete separately, and marathons have age categories. By grouping athletes by size, gender and age, the sport minimises the impact of these on the outcome of competition.
In Para sport, classification relates to the athlete's impairment. The impact that an impairment has on a given sport (or even discipline) may differ (like age affects performance in chess much differently than in rugby), and therefore each sport has its own sport classes. These are the groups in which an athlete will compete.
What is classification?
Classification is the competition structure used in Para sport to create a level playing field. This ensures that the best athlete (most skilled, fit and tactical) wins (not the athlete with the lowest level of impairment). Classification determines who can compete in the sport and groups these athletes based on the impact their impairment has on the key activities of the sport.
Classification also includes all the policies and procedures, rules and regulations.
Athlete evaluation is the process that an athlete undergoes to be allocated a sport class and sport class status.
Why do I need to be classified?
To ensure a fair and level playing field all athletes competing must be given a sport class and sport class status. The only way to be given a sport and sport class status is through classification by an international classification panel.
Am I eligible to participate in Para sport? What sports can I compete in?
In order to be eligible for international competition, you must meet two criteria:
1. Only certain impairments can compete in Para sport. These are defined in section 2 chapter 3.13 of the IPC Handbook. It is the International Federation for the sport that has decided which eligible impairments can compete. You can find this information in the Explanatory Guides to Paralympic Classification (summer sports or winter sports). In order to be considered eligible you will be requested to provide medical detail on your situation to the International Federation.
2. If you have an eligible impairment for the sport, you must also meet their minimum disability criteria. The minimum disability criteria ensure that the impairment causes an activity limitation in that particular sport or discipline. So they are sport-specific (except for athletes with a visual impairment). These minimum disability criteria will be assessed during athlete evaluation.
If you are interested in participating in a para-sport and want to find out if you are eligible, you can contact your National Paralympic Committee (NPC) for sport and classification opportunities at the regional or national level.
Where and when are athletes classified?
Athletes undergo athlete evaluation on site in the days preceding international competitions. Classification, however, does not occur at every competition. You will need to consult the IF website or contact your NPC.
Every athlete will be evaluated at least once at the beginning of their international career. Further evaluations depend on the type of impairment: some athletes must only be seen once in their career, and others regularly (e.g. for progressive or fluctuating impairments). Young athletes who have not yet reached physical maturity will also need to be seen more regularly.
As an outcome of athlete evaluation, an athlete will be given a sport class and a sport class status. The sport class defines in which class you can enter in to competition, the sport class status identifies if you need to present for subsequent evaluation.
Who classifies athletes?
Athletes are evaluated by classifiers, who work in a group called a classification panel. These classifiers are trained and certified as officials by the International Federation who governs the sport. Classifiers are experts in their sport and impairment type, for a list of their expertise see the question How do I become a classifier?
Who can come with me to classification?
An athlete can bring one extra person and an interpreter (if needed) to athlete evaluation. This extra person should be familiar with the athlete’s impairment and sporting history and must be a member of the athlete’s National Federation or authorised in advance by the chief classifier.
What if I do not agree with my sport class?
Classification panels take objective and transparent decisions on the basis of the sport classification rules. It may happen that you do not agree with the outcome. Each sport will have ‘protest’ rules. These rules will outline:
• Who may lodge a protest
• Which timelines apply
• Which documents are required
• Which fees are to be paid
The protest decision is final and cannot be further challenged.
As an athlete you cannot lodge a protest: this can only be done by your National Federation.
I have already been classified. Why do I need to be classified again?
Once you have undergone classification you will be given a sport class and sport class status. The sport class is the category you compete in, the sport class status tells you if and when you may need to go to classification again.
Every athlete will be evaluated at least once at the beginning of the international career. Further evaluations depend on the type of impairment: some athletes must only be seen once in their career and others regularly (e.g. for progressive or fluctuating impairments or young athletes). Also if you are the subject of a protest, you will need to present for classification again.
Do I need to be classified for each sport I participate in?
Yes, as each Para sport requires different activities affecting impairment in different ways, being eligible for one sport does not mean you are eligible in another.
Even if you have a visual impairment, you must be classified for every sport you wish to participate in.
How do I become a classifier?
International classifiers are trained and certified by the International Federation (IF). For international classifier courses, you should contact the IF of the sport you are most interested in.
International classifiers are trained for one specific impairment category, either for intellectual, physical or visual impairment. This is because classifiers must have qualifications relevant for the impairments they evaluate. The following qualifications are most common among classifiers:
Intellectual impairment: psychologists, experts in the sport and biomechanics
Physical impairment: medical doctors, physiotherapists, experts in the sport and biomechanics
Visual impairment: ophthalmologists and optometrists
Being involved in classification of national level athletes is a good way to be introduced in classification. Therefore, contact your NPC to find out about the opportunities available.