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A deep dive into the mysterious parasports classification system

An exploration of the classification of parasports, current issues with the existing system, and possible improvements suggested by elite Swiss wheelchair athletes and coaches

Authors: Kathleen Ostheim and Hannah Holzer

This summer the Paralympic Games will take place in Paris, France. We would like to use this opportunity to provide insight into the advantages, disadvantages and controversies associated with the current parasport classification system.

How does the parasports classification system work?

The classification system in parasports seeks to reduce the impact of an athlete’s impairment on their performance. The objective is to prevent athletes with a higher level of functioning from competing against and beating those with more severe impairments. The system plays an integral role in creating a fair competition with unpredictable results. It applies worldwide, from amateur competitions to the Paralympic Games.

spanisches basketball nationalteam bei paralympics in sydney

Basketball is one of the most popular parasports – and it experienced the biggest cheating scandal in the history of the Paralympics involving athletes with learning disabilities: in Sydney 2000, the Spanish national team won the gold medal with a team in which ten of the twelve players were not disabled. Consequently, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) excluded competitions for people with intellectual disabilities from the Games for the following twelve years. (Source: Twitter / https://www.news18.com)

An athlete is eligible for parasports if he or she has a permanent impairment. Types of impairment include reduced muscle strength or range of motion, limb deficiency, hypertonia, ataxia or vision impairment.

In addition to falling into one of these categories, an athlete must also meet the minimum impairment criteria to compete. This criterion specifies the minimum degree of disability an athlete must meet to compete, such as the level of amputation.

What are sport classes?

Each parasport has its own version of the classification system. Some sports are open to all impairment types, such as para-swimming or para-cycling. Others, such as para-dressage or para-canoeing, only allow athletes with certain types of disabilities to compete. Some sports are even disability specific, such as goalball for the visually impaired.

goalball für menschen mit sehbehinderung

Blind goalball at the Paralympics. (Image: amcnaught on Pixabay)

The classification system assigns an eligible athlete to a specific sport class in which he or she will compete. The sport classes are tailored to each sport: they are assigned based on an athletes ability to execute the movements needed to perform this sport.

Athletes with similar functional limitations are placed into the same sport class, regardless of their type of impairment. For example, in wheelchair racing, a paraplegic athlete may be placed in the same class as an athlete with a single or double leg amputation.

Evaluating which sport class an athlete belongs to is a multi-step process that includes physical and technical examinations, as well as observation during competitions. Some parasports have one sport class, such as sledge hockey and sitting volleyball, while others have over 50 classes, such as para-athletics.

Para-athletics as an example of the classification system

In para-athletics, athletes compete in track and field events. The sports classes are divided into T (for track) and F (for field) events. For example, athletes who compete in wheelchair racing, a track event, fall into one of the following seven classes:

Sport classes T32-34 consist of athletes with coordination impairments, such as hypertonia, ataxia and athetosis.

Sport classes T51-54 include athletes with limb deficiency, leg length differences, impaired muscle power or range of movement. For example, athletes with spinal cord injury can be found in this range of sport classes.

rollstuhlrennen

Wheelchair racing is one of the most competitive and widespread parasports. (Image: © Swissparalympic / Gabriel Monnet)

  • Category T51 consists of athletes with severe impairments of the trunk, legs and hands and moderate to severe impairments of the arms and shoulders. In T51, athletes generate forward power by using their biceps to pull the wheelchair rims up, rather than push down.
  • In category T52, shoulder and hand function are less impaired than in T51. Athletes in T52 have some triceps function, which they can use to accelerate the wheelchair.
  • Athletes in category T53 are unable to use their trunk and leg muscles but have full arm and shoulder mobility. The power needed to move the wheelchair forward is generated by their shoulders and arms.
  • T54 includes athletes with moderate to severe leg movement limitations or the absence of legs, such as single or double amputations. This group has complete control of their arms and good trunk control, allowing faster acceleration of the wheelchair and more precise manoeuvring.

The classification system and its application to any parasport is explained on the LEXI website. For each sport class, detailed graphics show the extent to which various body parts are impaired. The following video, for example, explains the classification system for wheelchair basketball. For a more in-depth look at the classification system, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) offers a free, self-paced online course.

What are the issues with the current classification system?

The current parasport classification system has its shortcomings. The inherent complexity of classifying disabilities makes progress slow and represents a challenge to revolutionizing the system.

Three issues of the classification system that we would like to highlight are:

  • the potential for cheating;
  • the limitations of the system for tetraplegic athletes;
  • the complexity of the system for the public.

Cheating the system with classification doping

Unfortunately, the issue of intentional misrepresentation, also known as classification doping, is not uncommon in parasports. This occurs when athletes intentionally underperform during assessments to secure a more favourable sport class allocation. Incorrectly classified athletes who are actually less impaired have an advantage over their accurately classified opponents.

With increasing incentives to secure first place, such as greater prize money and recognition, the practice of classification doping has become more widespread. As the popularity and engagement with parasports grows, athletes are looking for ways to gain a competitive edge.

“The larger the sport, the more incentivized athletes are to cheat.”

Paul Odermatt, elite wheelchair sports coach

rollstuhlleichtathletik trainer paul odermatt

Paul Odermatt has coached “Swiss Silver Bullet” Marcel Hug throughout his career as a wheelchair racer. Hug has won four gold medals in the T54 category at the last Paralympics in Tokyo and has won the prestigious Laureus World Sports Awards twice.

In his autobiography, Swiss wheelchair athlete legend Heinz Frei reports that he has competed against numerous athletes who have used classification doping to be placed in a category that does not match their level of impairment (page 143). Some athletes, such as those with cerebral palsy, have gone as far as using Botox injections to reduce muscle function or taking ice baths before their assessment to worsen muscle tone.

Classification doping thrives on the discrepancies between the evaluation locations and the subjective nature of these assessments. Until recently, Georg Pfarrwaller was Swiss national athletics coach at PluSport. He suggests setting up an international, centralized classification centre with advanced equipment and standardized assessments. Such a centre could ensure that all athletes undergo the same rigorous assessment procedure.

rollstuhlleichtathletik trainer georg pfarrwaller

Georg Pfarrwaller was honored by Swiss Olympic with the “Coach Award 2022” in the category “Disabled Sports”.

Challenges for tetraplegic athletes

Athletes with tetraplegia face unique challenges: They are assessed and classified with all other para-athletes, despite their impaired autonomic nervous system function. This puts tetraplegic athletes competing in endurance sports at a disadvantage. It can lead to them putting their health at risk by trying to push themselves beyond the safe limits of their heart rate and blood pressure.

Autonomic dysreflexia, a case of dangerously high blood pressure, can temporarily boost the performance of tetraplegic athletes by more than 10%, according to Claudio Perret, the coach of Swiss professional wheelchair racer Manuela Schär. Although this is incredibly dangerous and potentially fatal, some tetraplegic athletes deliberately induce autonomic dysreflexia before competitions to enable them to keep up with their competitors. This method of performance enhancement is known as “boosting”.

16.7% of athletes surveyed in 2009 admitted to having used boosting to enhance their performance during training and/or competition.

To prevent this practice, blood pressure checks are carried out on tetraplegic athletes. Perret explains that an athletes' blood pressure is not permitted to exceed 160 mmHg before a race. If it is above this threshold, the athlete must try to lower it, such as by emptying the bladder, otherwise she or he is not allowed to compete.

rollstuhlleichtathletik trainer claudio perret

Since 2013, Claudio Perret has been the coach of wheelchair racer Manuela Schär, multiple winner of all World Marathon Majors and current Paralympic Champion over 400 and 800 meters in the T54 class.

Beat Bösch, a Swiss wheelchair racer with tetraplegia, says that it is easy to tell when someone is “boosting”, for example, via the goose bumps they get. However, he perceives that the rate of boosting has decreased.

According to Bösch, athletes with complete tetraplegia are disadvantaged by the current classification system and the resulting unequal competition. To reduce the disadvantages for this group of athletes, he proposes a scoring system that takes into account all bodily functions, including cardiovascular and blood pressure function.

rollstuhlathlet beat bösch

Beat Bösch (class T52) won three silver medals and one bronze medal at the Paralympics in Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008, as well as three world titles and numerous medals at the European Championships in the short-distances track events.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has launched a new e-learning course specifically for all athletes and coaches participating in the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games. The course covers the anti-doping rules and procedures of the Games.

The spectator's perspective

With the rising popularity of parasports, it has become clear that greater emphasis should be placed on explaining parasport classification and competitions to the public. What does T53 mean? Why do some blind runners have a guide and others do not in the same heat? Why do some long jumpers have a prosthesis and others do not? Beat Bösch stresses that the public needs to understand the impairments of para-athletes in order to comprehend and appreciate their achievements. Therefore, a clear and concise explanation of the parasport classification rules is essential.

Despite the criticism of the current parasports classification system, the experts interviewed for this discussion agree that a complete overhaul of the existing system is neither necessary, nor feasible. According to Georg Pfarrwaller, “there is optimization potential within the existing framework, therefore there is no need to radically transform it.”

To improve public understanding, Paul Odermatt stresses the importance of presenting para-athletes as athletes. They want to be acknowledged for their sporting achievements, not known for their disability.

“A para-athlete is simply an athlete to me. I do not see the wheelchair.”

Paul Odermatt

rollstuhlathlet marcel hug mit community blogautorin kathleen ostheim

Kathleen Ostheim (co-author of this article) with multiple Paralympic champion Marcel Hug (trained by Paul Odermatt) at the 2023 World Para Athletics Grand Prix in Nottwil, Switzerland.

Merging categories for more competition in parasports?

Odermatt and Pfarrwaller agree that there are currently too many categories and too few competitors, even at an international level. This is particularly evident in para-athletics. Both the public and the athletes alike want to experience an exciting and engaging competition. Unfortunately, with only a few competitors per category, the outcome of a parasports event is oftentimes predictable, at least in certain sports classes.

By merging parasport categories, more reasonably sized groups would be created. This would make it easier to understand parasport competitions and increase the competitiveness within an event.

Many athletes, such as Beat Bösch, oppose the merging of events or sports classes. This is especially true for more severely impaired athletes, such as tetraplegics, who would be lumped together with less impaired athletes. Their chances of success would be further reduced.

In contrast, Heinz Frei is an advocate of merging categories. In his book, he describes how he was initially apprehensive about being paired with less impaired athletes (page 71). Merging categories, however, led to an overall elevation of all athletes' performances. Frei is grateful that he was pushed to hone his skills and develop as an athlete.

rollstuhlsport ikone heinz frei

With 35 Paralympic medals, Heinz Frei is considered the greatest wheelchair athlete of all time. Here he is signing his autobiography.

The pursuit of sporting excellence in an imperfect classification system

Despite its shortcomings, the existing classification system is foundational to the creation of an equal playing field for para-athletes with a variety of disabilities. Differences in body size and shape, muscle composition, and experience are normal in both able-bodied and parasports. Nevertheless, the additional heterogeneity of people with disabilities makes it difficult to develop a standardized classification solution that is equally suitable for all.

The para-athletics trainers Odermatt, Perret and Pfarrwaller are aware of the limitations of the current system. They stress that fairness is a challenge for all sports, not just parasports. While athletes have the right to voice their concerns and dissatisfaction, they have also committed to abide by the rules of their sport.

Mental strength and resilience are emphasized by Frei and Odermatt as crucial qualities for top athletes. These competencies help to overcome challenges and setbacks, including potential inconveniences arising due to the classification system.

“If you criticize the system, the question is can you propose a better one?“

Claudio Perret

The most essential part is that para-athletes are able to demonstrate their athletic abilities, just like able bodied athletes. The classification system should not interfere with this pursuit of athletic excellence. In the end, the focus should be on the para-athletes' sporting performance, not on an imperfect system.

The current classification system is under review and an updated version is expected to be released in 2024. Athletes, coaches and the public hope that the new system will ensure more accurate classification, be more resistant to manipulation and increase fairness within the world of parasport.

Have you ever struggled to understand the classification for a parasport event? Please share your experiences and opinions with us!

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