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Paralympic Games Date Back To 1940s, But Classification Has Evolved Most In Past 20 Years

By Todd Kortemeier | Oct. 18, 2020, 8 a.m. (ET)

Marlon Ray Shirley and Roderick Green relax after competing in the Men's Long Jump final at the Paralympic Games Sydney 2000 in Sydney.


The Paralympic Games Sydney 2000 were in many ways a significant milestone in the history of the Paralympic Movement.

The Games that IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch called the “best ever” were bigger and better than ever before. A record 3,879 athletes participated, increased television coverage brought the Games to more places around the world, and an enthusiastic Sydney crowd helped bring Paralympic sport to new heights.

Sydney 2000 helped show a global audience that the Paralympics were just as competitive as the Olympic Games. The level that countries would go to to compete manifested in one of the Games’ few negative moments, when an investigation revealed Spain’s intellectual disability basketball team was mostly made up of players who weren’t in fact eligible to compete. The need for a rigorous, evidence-based classification system was made clearer than ever.

Fair classification is particularly vital to Paralympic sports. Para athletes have a wide range of nuanced abilities, and ensuring people of similar abilities can compete against one another makes for a fair competition. Even a slight difference in arm function, for example, could make one athlete dominant if placed in the wrong class.

The roots of the Paralympic Games date back to the Stoke Mandeville Games in 1948. Classification then was based on medical diagnosis. But it became clear early on that just because athletes had the same condition did not mean they had the same physical abilities.

As Para sports continued to get bigger in the 1980s, the classification philosophy shifted away from a basis in medical diagnosis to how much function an athlete had. As long as athletes had the same level of function, they could compete fairly regardless of what their particular impairment was. And individual sports could set their own standards.

While a system based on function was a success, it was still primarily based on performance. The IPC sought to move to a system based on evidence and a thorough examination of an athlete’s abilities. In 2003 the IPC began to process to establish a code of standards for classification. The first IPC Classification Code was approved in 2007. It was most recently updated in 2015 and was designed to be an evolving code that can keep up with new understanding.

There are three steps to the IPC classification system. First, an athlete must have an eligible impairment. There are 10 such impairments, which are physical, vision, or intellectually based.

Then, an athlete must meet minimum disability criteria. These are set by each sport. Even though an athlete has a genuine impairment, it may not apply to that particular sport. Different sports require different physical abilities, and an athlete may meet the minimum disability criteria for one but not the other.

Finally, an athlete must be placed into a sport class. These also vary greatly by sport. Some sports only have one class, such as sled hockey. In others like swimming, subtle variations of ability matter greatly and there are many classes. And some sports only accept one kind of disability. Goalball, for example, is only for visually impaired athletes.

Certain team sports like wheelchair rugby utilize a points system to make sure that all teams are equal on balance. More points are awarded the greater an athlete’s physical ability is, and each team’s roster must not exceed a certain number. It is up to each team to judge how best to assemble its teams.

As for the people doing the evaluating, that is done by the international federation for each sport. And those sports use a classification panel of two to three people to evaluate athletes. Some impairments change over time. This can alter how an athlete is able to compete in a given sport, so it is an athlete’s responsibility to get reclassified after any changes.

All international federations must abide by the IPC code. And the IPC takes any violations seriously. Earlier this year, the IPC found the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation to be non-compliant after failing to verify the necessary player eligibilities and subsequently has removed wheelchair basketball from the Paralympic Games Paris 2024 until the IWBF meets compliance regulations. Ultimately, the fairness of Para sport depends on how these federations are enforcing the classification rules.

Todd Kortemeier

Todd Kortemeier is a sportswriter, editor and children’s book author from Minneapolis. He is a contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.