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Classification Systems for Paralympic Sports

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sports
Wordcount: 2411 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Integrity can be defined as demonstrating ethics and values by endorsing trust in sport where fair and honest performance and results are not enhanced or influenced by external interest. This including the support and conduct by athletes, administrators, officials, supporters and other stakeholders, on and off the sporting field, ultimately implementing a greater reputation and standing of the sporting contest and sport as a whole (Harvey & McNamee, 2018). Most importantly, people and organisations need integrity if sport is to remain safe, fair and inclusive. Thus, sports that abide are more likely to have valued members, are financially viable, and have greater on- and off-field successes (Healey, 2015).

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Established in 1989, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) has since highlighted the public profile of disability sport (Howe & Jones, 2006). Within disability sport, the classification system is the most controversial issue, with many athletes often falling short and a solution seeming most difficult to be able to meet the needs and desires of all (Brittain, 2009). “The basic goal of classification is to ensure that winning or losing an event depends on talent, training, skill, fitness and motivation rather than unevenness among competitors on disability-related variables (e.g. spasticity, paralysis, absence of limb segments)” (Sherrill, 1999). The classification system is intended to encourage participation in sport by controlling the impact of impairment on competition outcome (Tweedy, Beckham & Connick, 2014). The concept of a practice community has the abilities to determine whether a participant can control their own sporting practice within disability sport. Thus, determining whether what is central to sport for the disabled is the classification system, is at the best interest of the athletes (Morgan, 1994; Howe & Jones, 2006). When comparing the definition of integrity and the actions currently displayed by the IPC, it could be argued that they do not put the athletes’ integrity first when considering the classification system.

In earlier years, the classification system was complex, disability-specific which made it problematic for the IPC to attract media attention. The International Organisations for Sport for the Disabled, has been under pressure ever since the establishment of the IPC to find alternatives to the disability-specific classification system. Hence, the more up-to-date classification system facilitates streamlining of the Paralympic programs. The classification system for functional integration classifies what an athlete can and can do physically rather than on their disability (Howe & Jones, 2006). This system creates an increase in viable events, as it reduces the amount of classes, and focuses solely on functional ability (Vanlandewikck & Chappel, 1996). In 1992 the IPC introduced a rule which meant that required an event to have at least six competitors from four nations. Consequently, most significantly impacting events of those of more severely impaired and women (Howe & Jones, 2006). It could be argued that the IPC does not uphold practice and use its powerful position as an institution over the sporting practice. Also, it could be questioned to the extent the classification system pursues the vision at the heart of the IPC: “To enable Para athletes to achieve sporting excellence and inspire and excite the world.” (IPC Strategic Plan, 2015).

Research into the classification system has not developed as much in literature as other Paralympic sports areas, so the system’s validity is based on experienced classifiers as an alternative to empirical evidence, which can be argued as controversial (IPC Handbook, 2009). The IPC signify the need for greater improvement to the classification system.

As illustrated within the IPC Handbook, the strategic priorities of the IPC for 2015-2018 are as followed:

• Provide robust sport-specific classification, supported by policies, procedures and evidence, as a prerequisite for fair and easily understood competition.

• Develop athlete-centred classification processes, procedures and policies and actively communicate about classification at national and international level to ensure understanding, buy-in and support.

Due to the criticism and the classification system still believed to be unfair in the present day, changes are evolving. In line with the strategic priorities of the IPC 2015-2018, in 2017 changes were made to some of the most scrutinised categories within Para-athletics, due to development in research. This, however, comes with the consequences that athletes are likely to re-classify. Jonnie Peacock, one of Great Britain’s most well-known Para-athletes was transferred into a new revised category (BBC Sport, 2018a).

In relation to the medical model (figure 1), which reinforces how disability is perceived, described, and portrayed in various sporting contexts. The classification system is a large medical practice conducted mostly by able-bodied people “that can lead to stigmatisation and alienation because it ultimately creates a hierarchy of bodies” (Howe, 2008; Smith & Bundon, 2017). Thus, when an athlete experiences re-classification it hinders that they are the problem and that is at fault. This can have serious implications for an athlete, some athletes may be placed in the same category for their entire life’s and being re-classified could develop a feeling of personal cause, rather than a problem within the classification system. Thus, it again shows that it can be argued that the IPC is not supported by the key principle of Paralympism, resulting in para-athletes being disempowered.


Figure 1. The medical model of disability (Brisenden, 1986).

Similar to movements of the IOC, the IPC are constantly repackaging the Game to essentially sell the product, to increase demand. Making ongoing changes to the sporting model due to continuing pressure from sponsors and the media to ‘refresh’ and ‘modernise’ the Paralympic Games, by revising the amount of categories to make the Games ‘quicker, slicker and shorter’ and higher profile champions, (Howe & Jones, 2006) thus having a major impact on the athletes and their welfare. For example, in the upcoming Tokyo 2020 PT2 category has been removed from the triathlon event, consequently, Great Britain Rio 2016 Gold medal winner Andy Lewis dreams of lifting the trophy again at the biggest sporting event, is shattered (BBC Sport, 2018b). Consequently, the IPC decisions dispute the Paralympic movement’s aims and purpose. Seemingly, the IPC is concerned with the economic viability of the Paralympic Games ahead of the welfare of the practice community.

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Research has also identified that National Governing Bodies (NGBs) are ill-equipped for athletes retiring due to declassification. Para-athletes perceived that they were unable to provide support because NGBs were unfamiliar with the procedures because there was no equivalent within ‘able-bodied’ sport (Bundon et al., 2018). The para-athletes also made many comments about how their NGB responded when they were declassified. The para-athletes perceived that their NGBs were unfamiliar with retirements dues to classification issues (as there is no equivalent in ‘able-bodied sport’) and thus underprepared to support para-athletes in these situations. While one para-athlete reported being initially angry with her association for their lack of support, in the interview, she reflected that the situation was probably new to her NGB as well. Some athletes feel forced to retire due to declassification (Bundon et al., 2018), which is unique to para-sport. For these athletes, the transition period can be challenging, and they could value additional support (Bundon et al., 2018). Paralympic swimming Rio Gold winner Matt Wylie retired from the sport due to his reclassification at the age of just 21 years. He felt his passion had been drained following the declassification (BBC Sport, 2018c). A clear example of how the classification system is deterring athletes away from the sport.

Thus, there is a purpose for a more sustainable structure for the classification system within the disabled sport, in line with the strategic priorities of the IPC 2015-2018. The IPC need to develop a classification scheme which has greater evidence and research to ensure that the process is fair and tenable. However, in due course, the IPC should propose a scheme which puts athletes’ welfare first, with regard to the classification system that provides support and accommodates the IPC’s true vision. Howe and Jones (2006) suggest the need for a more athlete-focused system, specifically a hybrid approach, which allows the opportunity for greater motivated and highly trained athletes.

Further needs to be done by NGBs to be aware of their athletes’ welfare and especially the implications of re-classification. Performance Lifestyle advisors are accessible to all UK Paralympic sports, therefore, organisations need to take advantage of and use advisors to ensure that their athletes receive the support and mentoring they need throughout their careers (Ashfield, Harrison & Giles, 2017). In essence, athletes may become aware that they are at risk of re-classification and for this reason, advisors are able to organise support, including sport psychologists, which may reduce the risk of athletes contemplating retirement (Bundon et al., 2018). Also, the IPC should develop a pathway, with the core vision to support athletes through re-classification. This could include a transitioning period which would allow athletes to process the change psychologically but also adapt training to their new classification group. This would allow the athletes to work with their Performance Lifestyle advisors through the process and trainers, which in turn, could result in a more motivated and highly trained athlete. The IPC should have greater involvement and management ensuring that NGB are equipped to support their own athletes through the changing period. In the hope that with better supports the athletes will be less likely to retire, but also be successful in their new classification. Thus, greater governance and improvements to the classification system in disabled sport can develop better athlete development, consequently impacting athlete welfare and integrity.


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