the classification of athletes, a fair but fallible system

Some 4,400 athletes and almost as many disabilities: the Tokyo Paralympic Games, which take place from August 24 to September 5, like all parasport competitions, are confronted with inequalities between athletes. Because if the sportsmen are gathered under three categories – physical handicaps, visual impairments and mental handicaps (deaf people have their own competitions) -, in fact, many disparities exist.

To ensure fairness in events, athletes are subject to classification. “It’s a bit like weight or age categories in ‘able-bodied’ sports, explains Vincent Ferring, physiotherapist and international classifier. In boxing, it would not occur to the idea of ​​mixing heavyweights and featherweights. For parasports, it’s the same. Otherwise, it would always be the least disabled who would win. ”

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The principle is simple: through an examination by a doctor and a technician from the sport concerned, assess the impact of the handicap on the athlete’s performance. “We are talking about functional classification, details Vincent Ferring. We look at how the person is embarrassed, disadvantaged. “ She is then placed in a category with other athletes, who do not necessarily have the same handicap but the same levels of disadvantage. “It allows us to measure ourselves on equal terms”, summarizes the classifier.

Feeling of injustice

While all Paralympic sports are governed by this classification system, it is different for each sport. The physical skills required are not the same, and a handicap will not affect an athlete in the same way depending on the sport practiced. Certain disciplines are moreover accessible only to certain handicaps, like judo, reserved for the visually impaired, or seven-a-side football, intended for athletes suffering from brain damage.

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In each sport – with a few exceptions – the classes are designated by a letter, for the discipline, and a number, for the “degree” of handicap: the more important it is, the lower the number. For swimming for example, the categories from S1 to S10 (the S signifying swimming) include athletes with a physical disability, from S11 to S13 visually impaired athletes, while the last category, S14, is intended for mental disabilities. Each class has its test. For example, of the 31 swimming disciplines, 146 finals will be contested – compared to 37 at the Olympic Games.

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