A complicated maze searching for equity

TOKYO – Tokyo will compete 4,403 Paralympic athletes, each with unique differences that need to be classified. In the pursuit of fairness, lines must be drawn to group similar impairments or impairments with similar outcomes.

It’s a confusing maze. And make no mistake, the Paralympics are competitive and athletes know that no matter where a classification line is drawn, some are likely to benefit more than others.

The profit leads to gold medals, sponsorship deals and other external funding. And some teams are even known for recruiting these top-class athletes, and often younger athletes.

“The problem with the rating is that you are not happy if you are at the bottom,” said Heinrich Popow, two-time gold medalist in athletics. “The athletes always want the best rating.”

Healthy athletes have advantages in certain sports, and athletes with disabilities are no different.


There are 10 impairment groups at the Paralympics: eight include physical impairments and the other groups are for visual and intellectual impairments. But the 22 Paralympic sports adapt the groups to their sport and expand the ratings. Some athletes say they are not always fair.

“If we think we can swim or run the same times as everyone else, we feel good in class,” said Popov. “But when we feel like we’re doing our best and don’t even go through the qualifications or through the heats, you start complaining.”

The International Paralympic Committee has just started a regular review of the classification system, but changes are unlikely until after the 2024 Paralympics in Paris, said spokesman Craig Spence.

At first glance, the current classification system is difficult to digest. For example, Saturday’s swimming finals – each has a men’s and a women’s race – includes: 100-meter breaststroke, SB6 class; 100 freestyle, S10; 150 individual medleys, SM4; 150 individual medleys, SM3; 100 back, S11; 200 individual medleys, SM8; and 100 breaststroke, SB5.


Most athletes agree that there must be classes, but they can dispute the logic or science behind them.

“To be honest, athletes don’t understand the system,” said Popov. “Every athlete wants to focus only on himself and his disability and class. We need an overall classification system that everyone understands.”

Tea Cisic is the classification manager of the IPC. As a kinesiologist, it is her job to access the impairments.

“They (athletes) have a right to complain,” Cisic told The Associated Press. “You have the right to come up and say, ‘I’m not happy with my class. I think I was misclassified.’ And there is a process in which they are checked. “

Cisic acknowledges that the classification system is complex, but fans must strive to understand it, just as new fans might initially wrestle with the rules of cricket or baseball.

“Classification is complex and it requires an investment from the audience to understand how it works,” she said. “But when you do that, I think it will unfold.”


The Paralympics are more than a harmless version of the Olympic Games. In fact, some performances are better than the Olympics.

Markus Rehm – known as the “Blade Jumper” – lost his right leg below the knee in a wakeboard accident at the age of 14, but earlier this year he jumped 8.62 meters, a distance that has included the last seven Olympics the Tokyo that would have won games. The victorious long jump at this year’s Olympic Games was 8.41 meters.

Archer Matt Stutzman was born with no arms, only stumps on his shoulders. He holds a world record – for any archer, disabled or not – for the longest and most accurate shot to hit a target at 310 yards, or about 283 meters.

The biggest classification disputes concern athletes with “loss of function” – spinal cord injuries, spina bifida and cerebral palsy – and non-physical impairments such as missing limbs or physical deformities.

There tend to be fewer disputes over visible impairments, such as the loss of a limb. Coordination disorders caused by something like cerebral palsy are more likely to be questioned.


But the eye is deceptive. The Japanese swimmer Miyuki Yamada won a silver medal in the 100-meter back this week, class S2. She is 14 and was born with no arms. It seemed unfair to see her going up against swimmers with guns, and yet she won a medal.

Obviously, other swimmers had disabilities that were harder to spot.

Popow, a two-time gold medalist who is retired and not competing in Tokyo, said the Paralympics may arrive at a crossroads. This could include excluding athletes.

“The most important thing for us in the future is to clarify the question: Are we going to be a more professional sport or more of a motivational sport for society?” Asked Popow.

“If we go more on the professional side, we won’t talk so much about inclusion because it’s exclusion. We have to set standards. Athletes have to meet higher standards to be able to participate in the Paralympics.”


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