Article - A look at Paralympic Classification (Swimming)

The classification codes in the Paralympics can be very complicated to understand. So, let’s have a little look at the methodology and see if we can make some sense of it! 

After a long history of classifying athletes and lessons learned in the process, they are now assessed both on what their disability is and how that disability affects the sport they want to participate in. The IPC (Paralympics) assesses a bit differently to the codes you may have come across for things like spinal cord injury, instead grouping athletes based on how it may impact fair competition. 

Eligible impairments include: Impaired muscle power, impaired passive range of movement, limb deficiency, leg length difference, cognitive function, involuntary movements, muscle tension, uncoordinated movements, short stature and vision impairment. The athletes have to go through a lengthy assessment process, often waiting years to have access to the classification process, or making appeals to be registered in the right category. The assessment process tries to answer 3 main questions:

1. Does the athlete have an Eligible Impairment for this sport?
2. Does the athlete’s Eligible Impairment meet the Minimum Impairment Criteria of the sport?
3. Which Sport Class should the athlete be allocated in based on the extent to which the athlete is able to execute the specific tasks and activities fundamental to the sport?

If we take a closer look at swimming, we can see that it includes all of the 10 eligible impairments, and offers a large percentage of the medals on offered in Tokyo this year (162 in 2016!). We can start of by looking at the prefix for each event: 

The sport class names in swimming consist of a prefix “S” or “SB” and a number. The prefixes stand for the strokes and the number indicates the sport classes.

S: freestyle, butterfly and backstroke events.
SB: breaststroke SM: individual medley.
SM: is given to athletes competing in individual medley events.

Physical impairments

There are 10 classes of physical impairment, with the lower number being a more “severe activity limitation”. As the classes and assessments are based on how the impairment impacts swimming, there are people with all different physical disabilities competing in the same races. 

For example:

S1 SB1 – Swimmers have significant loss of muscle power or control in legs, arms and hands. Some have limited trunk control. Swimmers in this class usually use a wheelchair in daily life.

S10 SB9 – Minimal physical impairments of eligible swimmers. This includes the loss of one hand or a movement restriction of hip joint. 

Visual Impairments

There are also competitions for athletes with vision impairment, with 3 sport classes. The codes used are the same as all of the swimming events with S and SB prefixes denoting the event, but now you may also see with them B1, B2, or B3 denoting the level of visual impairment. S11 and SB11 classes are required to wear blackened goggles to ensure an even competition, and such athletes use a “tapper” to let them know when they are reaching the end of the pool. 

Cognitive impairments

S14 swimmers have cognitive impairments that typically affect performance through having difficulty with pattern recognition, sequencing and memory. This can affect sport performance in general and S14 swimmers generally do more strokes relative to speed than able-bodied elite swimmers. 

And that’s it! I hope this article can somewhat make things slightly easier to understand when watching the Paralympics. It’s a big event, and there is space for everybody in elite level sport. If there is something that has piqued your interest and you would like to know more about how to get involved with elite level sport, feel free to email info@whistleradaptive.com and we can point you in the right direction! 

Sources:
https://www.paralympic.org/swimming/about
https://www.paralympic.org/classification
https://www.paralympic.org/sites/default/files/2020- 10/2020_06%20Explanatory%20Guide%20to%20Classification_Summer%20Sports.pdf

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