What are the Paralympics classifications of disability? The eligible impairments for competing at the Paralympic Games and classification system, explained

With the Paralympic Games 2020 now underway in Tokyo, here's what you need to know about the classification system used to ensure fair competition between Para athletes of varied impairments and disabilities

The eligible impairments for competing at the Paralympic Games and classification system, explained (Image credit: Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

The 16th summer Paralympic Games is now in full swing after the Tokyo Olympic Games 2020 came to an end in early August.

Team GB left Tokyo with 65 medals in the bag and now ParalympicsGB are likewise scooping medals across 19 different sports at the Tokyo games.

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With just over a week of the Paralympics remaining, more than 200 British athletes are competing at the games in many classifications of ability and impairment.

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Here’s why the Paralympic classification system is used, what the ten categories of eligible impairment are and how athletes qualify for them.

What is the Paralympics classification system?

The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) describes its classification system as the ‘cornerstone’ of the competition, using it as a way to ensure fairness across all levels of competition and forms of disability.

The IPC’s Classification Code, which outlines the formal steps and process behind classifying athletes in sporting events according to disability, was approved by the Paralympic Movement in 2007.

With the Paralympic Movement first born out of the Stoke Mandeville Games held in tandem with the London 1948 Olympic Games, classification was originally treated in according with a stress on sports activity as a form of rehabilitation for those with disabilities and impairments.

In the 1980s the focus of Paralympic Games, formalised at the Rome 1960 Paralympics, changed to stress sporting ability over medical or rehabilitative classification.

Today, classification focuses nominally on athlete evaluation, with this forming a central part of deciding which athletes can compete in the Paralympics and what sport class they fall into across 22 different Paralympic sports.

What are the eligible impairments at the Paralympic Games?

At the centre of today’s Paralympic classification system used to allow athletes to qualify for Paralympic sports events is a list of eligible impairments drawn up by the IPC.

This includes ten different disabilities or impairments, both physical and mental, to classify athletes and their Sport Class Status.

There are a total of 10 eligible impairments for contenders in a Paralympic Games.

These impairments are:

Impaired muscle power Impaired passive range of movement Limb deficiency Leg length difference Short stature Hypertonia Ataxia Athetosis Vision impairment Intellectual impairment

Hypertonia describes when an athlete has increased muscle tension and difficulty stretching muscles as a result of damage to the central nervous system.

It be aggravated by underlying health conditions such as cerebral palsy, stroke and brain injury.

Ataxia is having uncoordinated movements and is also caused by central nervous damage, with the condition resulting from similar underlying health conditions to hypertonia but also multiple sclerosis, while athetosis means to have slowed, involuntary movements.

How do Para athletes qualify for classification categories?

The main way in which sportspeople and athletes qualify for contention in the Paralympic Games is through the classification’s system of athlete evaluation.

This sees independent and expert classifiers appointed for every sports event to decide whether an athlete meets the requirements for competition, including assessing whether they have an eligible impairment for a certain sport.

For instance, some Paralympic sports will not support certain impairments – with archery not allowing athletes with athetosis (involuntary movements) or intellectual impairment to compete in the Paralympic sport.

Classifiers will screen athletes entering the competition in a certain sport, asking whether they have an eligible impairment, whether this meets the minimum impairment criteria of the sport and which sport class they should be entered into according to their ability.

The process is one which, while central to the Paralympic Games, has been criticised by Paralympic athletes as a degrading process and one which opens them up to abuse or accusations over exaggerating their disability.

This has been particularly fuelled by accusations of widespread cheating and misrepresentation of athletes’ abilities in past Paralympic Games, with the classification system undergoing a review after the Rio 2016 Paralympics as a result of such claims.

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