Millions of people are expected to watch the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro over 11 days this September. Chances are you will see a swimmer with one leg on the blocks next to another swimmer with two legs and two arms. So how that can be fair?
The secret is a process called classification.
Classification underlies all Paralympic sport, yet the concept – and its practical application – is possibly the greatest barrier to the broader community’s understanding of the Paralympics.
Classification is the process of allocating athletes into classes so that they compete against others whose impairment affects them to a similar degree in their sport.
Who can compete?
The Paralympics are for athletes with a physical, intellectual or visual impairment.
But not every person with a disability is eligible for the Paralympics, and not every athlete who is eligible for the Paralympics is eligible for every sport.
The first element of classification is to determine whether an athlete has an impairment that makes them eligible for a sport.
The second element is to determine their class within the sport.
Sports such as swimming have developed a functional classification system, whereby every eligible athlete with a physical impairment is classified into one of ten classes (S1 to S10). This is based on the limitation their level of impairment places on their capacity to swim.
This means that athletes with a spinal cord injury can swim in the same race as athletes with cerebral palsy or limb deficiencies.
It also means that there are potentially up to 14 races for a single swimming distance in each stroke at the Paralympic Games. There is one for each of the ten physical classes, three vision-impaired classes and one class for athletes with an intellectual impairment.
High and low pointers
Sports with more restrictive eligibility criteria include wheelchair basketball, where athletes must have an impairment that limits their capacity to play the able-bodied game.
Athletes are then classified according to their level of impairment within a wheelchair and given a point rating. Players with the least impairment receive the most points (4.5) and the most impaired players are low pointers (down to 1.0).
To prevent the game being completely dominated by the high pointers, a team is limited to a total of 14 points on the court at any time.
Wheelchair rugby has a similar system, with points ranging from 0.5 to 3.5 and a maximum of 8 points across the four players on the court. The high pointers are the glamour players, but everyone has their roles on the court.
In the right class
Trained medical experts carry out the classification process based on comprehensive data and analysis made over many years. There is a rigorous review and appeal process.
But there is inevitably a range of impairment within a single classification class and it is an advantage for any athlete to be among the less impaired athletes in the same class.
As an example, the Australian swimmer Jacqueline Freney was originally classified in the S8 class and won three bronze medals in that class at the 2008 Beijing Games.
But Australian authorities believed that Freney had been classified into the wrong class. Following a process of appeal and review, she competed at the 2012 Games in London in the S7 class, winning eight gold medals.
Had Freney remained where she had been originally (and incorrectly) classified, her London times would have seen her out of the medals in most S8 events.
As the Paralympic Games becomes higher profile and more competitive, there is increasing pressure on the classification process to get it right, and on athletes to optimise their classification.
The classifiers use a range of practical tests and observe the athletes in competition when making their decisions.
Beat the cheats
Inevitably, there are claims of cheating, sometimes called intentional misrepresentation, whereby athletes pretend to have a greater level of impairment than is actually the case.
The most famous example is probably the case of the Spanish basketball team for athletes with an intellectual disability at the 2000 Sydney Games. After the team won the gold medal, ten of the 12 players were found not to meet the disability requirements.
The Australian Paralympic Committee employs a classification manager to assist athletes and sports in Australia and has an extensive classification program.
Getting athletes into the right class and the right sport for them can make an enormous difference in their enjoyment of sport and ultimately their chances of success at Paralympic level.
While it is not essential to enjoy the Paralympic Games, understanding the principles of classification can give you a greater appreciation of the principles behind Paralympic sport.