Classification explanation: Understanding the Paralympic codes


FIRST-TIME viewers of the Paralympics, which begin today, will find themselves navigating a thicket of classifications involving letters and numbers, which will need a lot of explanation.

Just as there are different disabilities and different levels of disability, there are different classifications. Hence, while there are only two 100m finals in the Olympics athletic programme (men and women), there are no fewer than 29 (15 men’s and 14 women’s) in the Paralympics.

Ireland’s Jason Smyth, who will look to defend his T13 100m and 200m titles, has been described as the fastest Paralympian on the planet because he won the 100m in his category in Beijing in a faster time than any other Paralympian.

The T stands for track and the number 13 signifies that he is a visually impaired athlete. There are three levels of visual impairment in track athletics, 11 to 13, with 11 indicating blindness and 13 partial sightedness.

Michael McKillop, another of Ireland’s gold medal hopes, competes in the T37 category, which covers cerebral palsy.

There are eight categories in the cerebral palsy track programme, from T31 through to T38, reflecting the gamut of the condition, which can range from being a wheelchair-user to something that is localised to a single limb.

McKillop’s condition is relatively mild and has allowed him to compete with able-bodied athletes in cross-country.

There are six categories in total: visual impairment; intellectual disability; amputee; those with cerebral palsy, wheelchair athletes; and another category called Les Autres, which includes dwarfism and multiple sclerosis.

Those with intellectual impairment have been readmitted to the games this time around. Many people confuse the Special Olympics, which is for people with an intellectual disability, with the Paralympics.

Intellectually disabled athletes can compete in the Paralympics but only if they meet exacting standards. The Paralympics is an elite competition, while the emphasis in the Special Olympics is on participation.

Swimming is one of the few disciplines that mix the disabilities. Swimming categories are based on degrees of impairment and are graded 1 to 10, one being the most impaired and 10 being the least; hence a cerebral palsy athlete might find themselves up against an amputee in the pool.

British swimmer Ellie Simmonds, who is the face of the games, competes in the S6 (S for swimming) category because she has full use of her limbs but is abnormally short at just 1.23m, or just over 4ft.

The classifications are determined by the individual sporting bodies and those involved in it are known as “classifiers”, who are usually medical professionals. Ophthalmologists, for instance, would be involved as classifers in determining the extent of blindness for athletes.

Inevitably there are individual athletes and national paralympic associations that will look for an advantage by underplaying disabilities to get an easier category. Some 700 athletes in Beijing had their classifications queried and most of those were moved into a more difficult category. The International Paralympic Committee (IPC), which oversees the games, has signalled that it intends to step up its vigilance this time around.

Channel 4, which is providing 500 hours of coverage, will unveil its traffic light Lexi Decoder system during the games. This works on the traffic light principle and indicates the severity of disability according to a colour code, with red indicating the severest disability.