Classifying disabilities still an issue for Paralympics 

With new standards and fewer categories medals mean more, but problems inevitable

SESTRIERE, Italy - Like any other sport, the Paralympics are eager to create a level playing field for the athletes, where no competitor or team has a preventable advantage and everyone is judged fairly. Because no two disabilities are exactly the same, that’s more difficult than it sounds.

Determining exactly what classification an athlete belongs in at the Paralympics can be a tricky business.

For sports like wheelchair curling and sledge hockey there is a minimum requirement competitors must meet to qualify, and it’s relatively simple to determine who meets that requirement.

For other sports, it’s a lot more complicated. It’s not an exact science, and according to the International Paralympic Committee’s medical and scientific director, Andy Parkson, it never will be.

"Classification was started in the 1960s looking at classic models of disability; spinal cord injuries, cerebral palsy, amputees, but with advances in medicine and technology we’re seeing athletes who wouldn’t have competed in the past but are competing now with a whole range of qualifications," said Parkson. "Now we’re getting away from the best practice models of the past and replacing it with models supported by science and sports science.

"Coaches, for example, have so much information on athletes, and we have to gather that information and really make use of it.

"That said, there will always be boundaries in each class, and sometimes an athlete falls to one side of the boundary and struggles, and sometimes an athlete falls to the other side and wins. Ultimately you have to draw a line somewhere."

The IPC is committed to overhauling the system by which athletes are classified to ensure that every athlete gets a proper medical assessment using an identical set of assessment procedures. They also want to create a standard system of review and appeals to give athletes every avenue to argue their case before being assigned a classification.

In the winter Paralympics, classification is a big issue for alpine and Nordic events. All athletes have to undergo a medical evaluation before they are classified "geared towards the specific demands of the sport," said Parkson. "We have to make sure athletes have a good understanding of who they’re racing against and an understanding of what they need to achieve to be awarded a gold medal."

For the first time in Paralympic history, the alpine and Nordic events are using World Cup standards to place athletes. Rather than grouping athletes with like disabilities together in a very specific way, the athletes are put into either sitting, standing or visually impaired groups and assigned a time deduction that corresponds with their specific level of ability.

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