Nine Canadian Paralympic ski athletes in various skiing positions. Three athletes are sit skiing and six athletes are stand skiing. Spark Solutions.

Classification and Paralympic Competition

We’re days away from lighting the cauldron at the Beijing 2022 Paralympic Games. We will once again watch inspiring performances by Paralympic athletes as they show off their skills, effort and gusto. Did you know that Paralympic athletes must go through a process called classification to be eligible to compete internationally? This blog post shares what this process is, why it’s beneficial, and why it is also a barrier to competition. It concludes by discussing some solutions to minimize barriers and enhance participation.

The Impairments in Paralympic Sports

There are six winter sports (alpine skiing, biathlon, cross-country skiing, para ice hockey, snowboard, and wheelchair curling) and twenty-two summer sports. There are ten categories of eligible impairments for the Paralympic Games and each sport determines which impairments are allowed. The ten categories are: impaired muscle power, impaired range of movement, limb deficiency, leg length difference, short stature, hypertonia, ataxia, athetosis, visual impairment, and intellectual impairment. Classification systems are developed by the International Federations governing each sport. Different sports require different abilities so each sport needs unique consideration.

The Process of Classification

Athletes compete after going through classification. This means that athletes receive an assessment of their impairment to ensure that they are appropriately placed and are then placed within a class. The purpose of classes is to ensure that athletes are competing against other athletes who face similar effects of their impairments. The intention is that the impact of the impairment is minimized and that athletes compete on an even playing field. However, you don’t always stay in one class during the course of your athletic career. Some athletes need to be classified several times because the nature of their impairment has changed. For instance, an athlete may need to be reclassified if their visual impairment increases.

The Little-Known Sport Volunteer

Classifiers are medical professionals and experts in the sport who assess athletes prior to competing. Other professionals, such as psychologists, are brought in to help classify intellectually impaired athletes. Classifiers are volunteers. They are not paid, although their expenses are reimbursed. They receive training, which is specific to the sport, which supplements their background technical or medical knowledge. There may be some differences between classifying athletes at a national or international level, so there can be different levels of training to support each.

An Enabler or a Barrier to Participation?

The concept of classification can make competition fair, but it can also be a barrier to participation. You must be classified at an international level competition to compete internationally. These often occur outside of Canada. National teams can have limited funding that they can use to send athletes to be classified. And, if they do send an athlete, and the athlete does not meet the criteria, it can feel like an expensive gamble that did not pay off. Even if you have athletes to be classified, and funds to send them, there can be a limit to the number of people that can go through the process at a competition. Canada may receive only one or two spots, which means it can be a long wait to get classified. As well, there are often not enough classifiers because classifiers are a little-known type of sport volunteer.

It’s also important to mention that the process of classification can be a stressful, and sometimes traumatic, experience. It requires the athlete to go in front of three people, often strangers, and to discuss one’s disability. It may feel similar to previous traumatic medical assessments, or it may require others to recall an injury, and it can feel like a pass or fail environment. Classification also results in exclusion – not all parasports include all disabilities, nor does it include all spectrums of disabilities. Those who do not fit into the classification criteria are not able to compete.

Seeking Solutions

There are several solutions that could enhance the classification process. Online classification is a concept that’s become much more accepted since the beginning of the pandemic. Some pilot projects are underway to determine if this could be done fairly and consistently. If so, it will make classification much more accessible. A second solution would be to train more national level classifiers who could then move into the international space. A third solution would be to offer basic classification training for coaches, athletes, and parents and caregivers so that there’s a better chance they are moved into the appropriate class early on and don’t get unexpectedly reclassified when they reach the international stage.

Minimizing financial barriers is also a solution. Additional funding and support to get athletes to be classified, and minimizing appeal fees if they feel the classification did not place them correctly would enhance accessibility. And finally, offering an open class at local, provincial/territorial, and national competitions, would provide people who don’t fit the official classification categories the opportunity to participate in their chosen sport, even if they can’t compete in international competition. Widening awareness and access have always been solutions to participation.

I hope you’ve learned more about the classification process that is required to participate in international parasport. If you’re interested to become a classifier, contact your local parasport group and they will be able to direct you to the right place.

Thank you to Jennifer Larson, Program Manager with Canadian Cerebral Palsy Sports Association and Boccia Canada for providing helpful insights in the development of this article.

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