How are athletes classified?

Scott Rodgers, Wheelchair Fencing
Scott Rodgers, Wheelchair Fencing

The Paralympic classification system was created to organize competition among athletes with physical, intellectual and visual impairments. The system is based on scientific evidence and athlete evaluation. To ensure fair competition, an athlete’s type and degree of activity limitation determine his or her assignment to a specific “sport class.”

Each sport class is intended to group athletes with similar functional limitations—so, for example, amputee athletes compete separately from blind athletes. The classification system provides a structure for competition—similar to grouping able-bodied athletes by age, gender or weight. The goal is to minimize the impact of impairments on sport performance and to ensure the success of an athlete is determined by skill, fitness, power, endurance, tactical ability and mental focus—the same factors that account for success in sport for able-bodied athletes.

Danielle Fong, Shooting
Danielle Fong, Shooting

Each sport has its own classification system because an impairment affects an athlete’s ability to perform differently across the sports. For example, an arm amputation will affect an archer differently than a swimmer. As a consequence, an athlete may meet the criteria to compete in one sport but not another. Not every sport is offered for athletes of every impairment type. For more information, visit Paralympic sports by physical impairment group.

Mary Stack, Powerlifting
Mary Stack, Powerlifting

Athlete evaluation

Each Paralympic athlete undergoes a process to verify his or her eligibility to compete in the sport. To compete in the Paralympic Games, the athlete must undergo international classification, separate from their own nation’s classification system.

The evaluation process is conducted by a classification panel, which is composed of individuals authorized and certified by a sport federation to determine an athlete’s sport class. The process (typically) includes:

  • Verification of the presence of an eligible impairment for that sport;
  • Physical and technical assessments to examine the degree of activity limitation;
  • Allocation of sport class(es); and
  • Observation in competition.

When undergoing athlete evaluation, an athlete is only classified for the respective sport. This is because classification systems differ by sport and are overseen by the International Federation (IF) governing each sport.

If an athlete is not eligible to compete in a sport, this result does not call into question whether an impairment is genuine. It means that:

  • The athlete does not have a primary impairment that makes him or her eligible to compete in that sport, or
  • The impairment is not severe enough to significantly limit the athlete’s ability to fully participate in that sport.

Due to the progressive nature of some impairments (such as multiple sclerosis) and the impact on certain activities, athletes sometimes undergo classification evaluation several times throughout their career.