Like a jungle of dense bushes and plants, in which even an experienced safari guide can lose track, the classification system loops around para-sport. Different sets of rules of the responsible sports associations, guidelines that change often, forms, tables of points and international standards – if you want to make your way through the thicket, you need a big machete. Even the athletes sometimes find it difficult to find their way around. “I don’t want to bother with it at all. The disabilities are far too different for that, ”says the German para-swimmer Denise Grahl, who had to cancel her participation in the Paralympics in Tokyo for health reasons. The idea behind the many starting classes is very simple: create equal opportunities.
The fact that theory and practice are often far apart, however, was shown by the example of the World Association of Wheelchair Basketball, which last year had to revise its classification guidelines under pressure from the International Paralympic Committee and thus caused a scandal. From now on, the long-time German national player Barbara Groß with her minimal disability was no longer eligible to participate. “I was in shock for several days,” she told Deutsche Welle. It was only after a medical suggestion that the silver medalist was given back her international starting permit from the games in Rio, who is not dependent on a wheelchair in everyday life.
In order to be classified and thus even allowed to take part in competitions, every Paralympic sports association has its own classification system. A distinction is made between physical, mental and visual disabilities. When allocating to the respective starting class, a combination of letters and numbers, athletes with physical or mental disabilities are checked, in addition to medical examinations and psychological tests, to what extent movement restrictions exist. The classification in the case of visual impairment is based solely on the medical findings and applies to all types of sport. The following applies: the higher the class number, the lower the severity of the disability was assessed.
Every world association has representatives for the investigation
In para-swimming, for example, the classification works as follows: There are S classes for freestyle, back and butterfly positions, SB classes for breaststroke and SM classes for medley swimming. According to a point system, the participants are divided into classes 1-14. A non-disabled athlete would therefore receive 300 points. Anyone wishing to take part in an international para competition must not show more than 285 points. The points are divided among the different body regions as well as restrictions on start and turn. Depending on the style, arms or legs are weighted differently. Due to the large number of classes, there are a large number of starts in one and the same discipline in swimming. In Tokyo, for example, the women’s 100 meter freestyle is swum by six different groups. The men’s 100-meter sprint in para-athletics takes place 16 times, including the four wheelchair races.
For the examination of para-athletes before an international sporting event, every world association has special representatives, mostly medically and psychologically trained specialists or appropriately trained trainers or former athletes, who carry out the assessment. Since many competitions have been canceled since the corona pandemic, classifications are still pending in Tokyo – the German team is not affected.
Basically, there are athletes who are regularly reclassified to check whether the degree of their disability has changed. The short swimmer Denise Grahl has not had to undergo any further examinations since this summer – and is quite happy about it. “First I had to answer questions, then I was pushed through on a cot. That makes me uncomfortable, after all I don’t have more than one swimsuit on, “says Grahl of her most recent examination:” At the end there was the water test, where I have to swim ahead. I was really excited because my athletic career depends on the start class. “
Allegedly visually impaired athlete drives a car
For the Brazilian Paralympics star Andre Brasil, the international career was over after the last classification. The seven-time gold medalist in para-swimming came to 286 points after a revision of the guidelines – one point too many. Brasil went to court unsuccessfully and accused the IPC, among other things, of the fact that the classification rules were not transparent, undemocratic and discriminatory.
Again and again there is criticism – the chances of success depend on the division into the starting class. “Too arbitrary, too manipulable”, the British para-athlete Bethany Woodward described the classification in an interview with the BBC. Helmut Hoffmann, sports doctor at the German Disabled Sports Association (DBS), called for a superordinate institution, analogous to the Anti-Doping Agency, to carry out the classifications independently and act independently – because there are always attempts at fraud.
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“When it comes to performance and money, there is always cheating,” says Rinaldo van Rheenen. According to the referee expectation for para-athletics, it has already been claimed in studies that some movements cannot be performed – only to slip into a lower class. Years ago, the former head sports doctor at DBS, Jürgen Kosel, reported to “Die Zeit” that an allegedly visually impaired athlete drove home in his car after the competition. As a preventive measure, visually impaired athletes in para-athletics have to mask their eyes in addition to the mask they wear for such a reason. But “there will never be absolute fairness,” says Sara Grädtke, coordinator for classification in para-athletics, too many factors are too different individually.
For everyone involved, it is a tightrope walk between fair competition, maximum participation and preventing fraud. The loops of the necessary regulations wind tightly around what is actually an open sport.
This text is part of this year’s Paralympics newspaper. You can find all the texts in our digital series here.