How does the Paralympic classification system work?

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Like the Olympics, the Paralympic Games take place a year later initially scheduled due to the delay caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), 2,550 male and 1,853 female athletes are participating in the Games, which take place 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.

Paralympians are grouped according to “degree of activity limitation resulting from impairment,” according to the CPI.
As different sports require different physical demands, the IPC says the classification process “aims to minimize the impact of the impairment on the performance of athletes” so that their athletic prowess is showcased.

The IPC’s “athlete evaluation” process seeks to answer three questions.

Members of the U.S. team prepare to enter the pool during a swim training session for the triathlon ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.
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Does the athlete have a permanent “qualifying impairment”?

First, it must be determined whether the athlete has an “underlying medical condition” which has led to a “permanent qualifying impairment”. The evaluation is carried out by the governing body of the International Sports Federation which oversees each individual sport.

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

Once it has been assessed whether or not an athlete has a qualifying impairment, it must then be determined whether the athlete meets the “minimum impairment criteria”. The classification of each sport has rules for “describing the severity of an eligible handicap for an athlete to be considered eligible to compete”.

Examples of minimum impairment criteria include the maximum height defined for short athletes or a defined amputation level for athletes with impaired limbs. The criteria are based on scientific research.

Members of Team Iran attend the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.

What do the courses mean in each sport?

The last step is to decide on the sport class of an athlete.

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

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

“If different impairments result in a similar activity limitation, athletes with those impairments are allowed to compete together,” the IPC said.

Since some impairments progress over time, athletes may change classification over time.

IPC brand and communications director Craig Spence said determining athlete classification ahead of the Games was a “real challenge” due to the pandemic.

“The international federations have done a lot of work over the past six months to rank the athletes in advance.”

Spence says they are working to rank all the athletes who are due to compete at this year’s Games, but the lack of competition since the start of the pandemic has made it more difficult for the IPC.

“They haven’t been able to attend a competition in the last 20 months where a classification has been offered,” he explained.

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Preparations underway ahead of the 2020 Paralympic Games Opening Ceremony at the Olympic Stadium.

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

“Ranking is underway and we hope all athletes will be ranked before their competition dates.

“The classification process is done according to the rules despite the pandemic. You are placed in a class and then you are observed competing to make sure you are in the correct class.”

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