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Explainer: what is ‘classification’ at the Paralympics?

Classification allows athletes to compete against those with a similar level of impairment. EPA/Louisa Gouliamaki

If you’re watching the Paralympics on TV, listening on radio or reading about the Games in the papers or online, you’ll notice different sports are sub-divided into separate classes.

If you’re listening to the swimming, you won’t hear about the men’s 100m freestyle – instead you might hear about the men’s 100m freestyle – S2 or the men’s 100m breaststroke – SB9.

Similarly, if you’re watching the track and field events, you won’t see the women’s 400m sprint as you would in the Olympics. Instead you might see the women’s 400m – T12 or the women’s 400m – T37.

What is classification all about?

So what does S1 mean in the context of a swimming event? And what does T12 mean in the context of a race on the track?

Quite simply, athletes are classified according to the extent of their impairment. The different classifications indicate the type and degree of disability possessed by the athletes in that particular class.

In swimming, freestyle, butterfly and backstroke events are prefixed with the letter “S” and run from S1 up to S14:

  • Classes 1-10 are for athletes with a physical impairment
  • Classes 11-13 are for athletes with a visual impairment
  • Class 14 is for athletes with an intellectual impairment

“SB” is used to refer to breaststroke events and “SM” is used to refer to individual medley events.

If a swimmer is classified as S1, he or she will have a significant loss of muscle power or control in his or her legs, arms, hands and torso. These impairments may be caused by spinal-cord injuries or polio. A swimmer in this class usually uses a wheelchair in daily life.

A swimmer classified as S10 will be impeded far less by their impairment when competing.

In short, the lower the classification number, the greater the impact the athlete’s impairment has on their performance in that particular event.

Track and field

In track and field events, a different classification system is used.

The letter “T” is used to refer to a track event (such as the 100m or the 1,500m) and the letter “F” is used to refer to field events (such as long jump or discus). These letters are combined with the following classes to designate a particular event:

  • Classes 11-13 are for athletes with a visual impairement
  • Class 20 is used for athletes with an intellectual impairment
  • Classes 31-38 are for athletes with celebral palsy
  • Classes 40-46 are for athletes with an impairment that affects their arms or legs (including amputees)
  • Classes 51-58 are for wheelchair racers or field athletes who throw from a seated position

As with swimming events, the lower the number in track and field classifications, the greater the impact the athlete’s impairment has on their performance in that event.

And while there are slight similarities between some schemes, each of the 21 Paralympic sports has a different classification system.

More information about individual sports can be found by going to the London 2012 Paralympics website, navigating to the sport of interest, and clicking on the “Classification” tab.

What types of impairments are recognised?

The International Paralympic Committee has produced a Guide to Classification which documents ten impairments for classification:

  • reduced muscle power
  • passive range of movement
  • loss of limb or limb-deficiency
  • leg-length difference
  • short stature
  • hypertonia (abnormal increase in muscle tension)
  • ataxia (lack of co-ordination of muscle movements)
  • athetosis (unbalanced, involuntary movements)
  • visual
  • intellectual

What is the classification system for?

The purpose behind the Paralympics classification system is to ensure all athletes have equal opportunities to compete, and an opportunity to compete against athletes with the same type and degree of impairment.

Each of the 161 Paralympic athletes representing Australia has been assessed by a sport-specific, certified classifier who determines how their impairment influences their sporting ability.

The evaluation process for a classification includes: medical, visual or cognitive testing; demonstration of sport skills; and observation during competition.


Goalball is a good example of the efforts made through classification to ensure equal opportunities to compete at the Games.

It is a sport for participants who share the one disability: visual impairment. It has participants who are completely blind and have no light perception, and some who have a low visual acuity. Athletes with a visual field of a maximum diameter of less than 40º are eligible to compete.

But in order to create a level playing field, all players must wear dark eyeshades during the game. This means the athletes must rely solely on their hearing (the ball has two bells in it) to predict the trajectory of the incoming ball.

Yes, the Paralympic classification schemes can seem slightly confusing – but they shouldn’t take away from your enjoyment of the Games.

See more Explainer articles on The Conversation.

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