Is it fair for a runner with one below-the-knee amputation to race against a runner with legs of different lengths? What about a discus thrower with no ankle movement and one with a prosthetic? Or a long jumper with a prosthetic and one with two legs?
These are the questions that World Para Athletics — the international federation overseeing Para track and field — seeks to answer by categorizing Paralympic athletes into different sport classes.
Unlike in the Olympic Games, where each athletic event has one competition for men and another for women, Paralympic competitions are also split up by sport class based on the athletes’ level of impairment. Ideally, this ensures that every athlete competing in a sport class has an impairment that causes the same level of limitation, and no athlete should have an advantage or disadvantage over others competing in the same class.
Of course, this is no easy task.
“It’s a really tough thing; I get it,” said Paralympic gold medal-winning discus thrower David Blair. “You’re trying to make it so that people can compete against like-disabled athletes. And really, none of them are the same.”
The solution: Having many, very specific, sport classes. Like every other athlete competing at the Paralympics, Blair was evaluated to make sure his impairment — clubfoot — met the minimum criteria. Blair’s is one of the 10 different types of impairments in Paralympic competition, all of which are permanent impairments —paralysis, amputated limbs, other types of limb or joint deficiencies, short stature, vision impairment, and intellectual impairment.
Then, he was assigned his sport class. Sport classes are labeled by letter — T is for track events and F is for field events — and by a two-digit number. Track and field athletes are given one of the following sport classifications:
● T/F11–T/F13: Vision-impaired athletes. Some of these athletes compete with a guide, who is also awarded a medal.
● T/F20: Intellectually impaired athletes.
● T/F30s: Athletes with a coordination impairment, and uncontrolled movements, typically from cerebral palsy or a brain injury. Athletes in the lower-numbered classes (up to T/F34) compete seated, while athletes in classes T/F35–38 compete standing.
● T/F40–41: Short athletes, typically those with dwarfism.
● T/F42–44: Athletes with a lower limb impairment, including leg length difference and reduced range of motion. These athletes do not use prosthetics.
● T/F45–47: Athletes with an upper limb impairment, including reduced range of motion in one or both arms and amputations.
● T/F50s: Athletes who compete seated due to restricted movement or limb deficiency, i.e., someone with a spinal cord injury.
● T/F60s: Athletes with one or two amputated legs, competing with prosthetics.
So for Blair, discus is a field event, and 44 stands for a limb deficiency without a prosthetic, making his sport class F44. It’s worth noting that some of these classes required new events to be made to accommodate the athletes: wheelchair racing is unique to Para track, along with seated throwing.
Even though there are many classifications in place in order to split up levels of impairment, at the same time, some of them are grouped together for competition. In Blair’s example, he competes against athletes who use a prosthetic, though he says running blades have more movement than his foot.
“When they tested me I had zero percent mobility in the ankle,” he said. “When I was watching Oscar Pistorius run, I could see that that blade was flexing and that’s something my foot can’t do.” At the same time, he also said, “In our event I do feel like we’re on equal ground.”
For an event like long jump, however, Blair said the fairest thing is to split up prosthetic and non-prosthetic athletes, as it is now. According to two-time Paralympian Jarryd Wallace, who just recently added long jump to his repertoire for the 2021 Paralympic Games in Tokyo, long jumpers with prosthetics may soon be jumping farther than able-bodied athletes, because the blade acts as a spring. Long jumper Trenten Merrill agrees, saying he one day hopes to be competitive with able-bodied athletes.
Still, the system is not without its flaws. Athletes who feel they’ve been incorrectly classified can have their governing body file protests on their behalf. Beyond that, the grouping of more than one classification into one event, as it is with discus, can raise questions of who should be competing against whom. That’s part of the reason why every four years, World Para Athletics reviews the classification rules and makes adjustments.
For his part, Merrill is satisfied with the current policy, but knows that there’s always room for improvement.
“I think they’re doing pretty well splitting the classifications,” he said. “I think they can continue to make more improvements with splitting them so that it is the same disability competing against the same disability.”
And as far as Blair is concerned, “they’re trying to do the best with what they’ve got.”