It's Really Hard to Give Disabled Athletes a Level Playing Field

A British sprinter recently returned her medal, feeling that an inaccurate classification had given her relay team an unfair advantage.

by s.e. smith
Dec 14 2017, 11:18pm

Lucas Uepel/Getty Images

Every two years, some of the world’s most elite disabled athletes gather to compete against their peers from all over the world, alternating summer and winter sports. Some become beloved household names, while others bring awareness to lesser-known sports like wheelchair rugby, goalball, paraswimming, and numerous other competitions featuring disabled athletes performing at their peak.

Paralympic sport, and adaptive sport in general, presents a unique challenge: Because disability is highly variable, simply throwing all interested athletes into the mix isn’t equitable or just. Instead, competition organizers need to level the playing field by grouping like with like, in a series of labyrinthine classifications depending on the nature and degree of impairment. Thus, for example, a swimmer with poor muscle power and control in both her arms and legs doesn’t have to compete against a swimmer with minimal movement restriction.

The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) recognizes ten categories of impairments: Intellectual disability; visual impairment; hypertaxia; atonia; short stature; limb loss; athetosis; impaired passive range of movement; impaired muscle power; and limb length difference. Athletes who want to compete must be evaluated to confirm the nature and severity of their disabilities, with competition in some sports limited to specific impairments. (Goalball, for example, features blind or visually impaired athletes only.)

But while athletes and organizers alike agree that classification is key to ensuring that people have a fair competitive experience, the process of establishing these classifications is filled with pitfalls. Some disabled athletes have a largely positive experience, typically in the case of those with very straightforward, clear impairments that make them easy to categorize. Others feel frustrated, and at times are driven out of parasport altogether.

“If I win a competition, I want to win it fair and square,” says Lex Gilette, a blind track and field athlete who competes in the T11 and F11 categories. “If I lose, I don’t want to have to speculate on whether or not the competition was fair.” For him, classification is relatively straightforward, involving evaluation by an ophthalmologist to determine his degree of vision loss, which in his case is severe. In the Rio Paralympics, organizers added another equalizing factor: Blind athletes in class T11 had to wear eyepatches and blindfolds, ensuring that small variances in vision didn’t create unfair advantages.

But Gilette is in a somewhat unique position: The nature of other impairments makes it functionally impossible to introduce an artificial element to equalize the sport.

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Instead, athletes explain that they undergo examinations with physical therapists, doctors, and classifiers familiar with their sport to learn more about their strength, range of motion, and abilities. Sometimes this also involves demonstrating their sport—hopping in the pool, for example. Sam de Leve, a multidisciplinary athlete who competed broadly in parasport but ultimately felt too disheartened by the classification process to pursue Paralympic competition, notes that this can also involve observing people in an actual race, in some cases, as people tend to compete to the best of their abilities when there’s something on the line. Those who feel their classification is inaccurate may appeal.

Through the years, accusations of cheating have been a persistent problem—Jacque Mox, who swam for Team USA in Sydney in 2000, noted that her team actually challenged a French athlete who appeared to have falsified the nature of her disability. In sports like swimming, where fractions of a second count, misclassification can be unjust to other athletes, or can leave an athlete struggling to catch up.

Mox faced this problem when she was mistakenly classified as S6, a lower level of impairment than S5, the class where she belonged. She was forced to start in the water while other athletes started from the block, a clear sign that she was in the wrong class, and she had to appeal her status, which she did successfully.

British sprinter Bethany Woodward recently returned one of her medals, feeling that an inaccurate classification had given her relay team an unfair advantage. In Britain, a large and robust debate surrounding Paralympic sport is including hearings and calls to reform the system to make it more just, but that’s easier said than done. The cries that people are cheating to gain an unfair advantage may result in radical reforms to the system, but whether those create positive change is another question.

"No impairment is identical and if the boundaries were narrowed further, then the result would be even more medal events at events with less depth of talent," explains Craig Spence, communications and media director for the International Paralympic Committee. "The classification system is evolving and improving all the time as a result of ongoing research and competition data," he adds, noting that the IPC is working with "three leading universities" to refine the way it classifies athletes. For the time being, he says, an international standard for training classifiers, paired with recertification and evaluation in the event of injuries sustained during examinations, is designed to keep things fair.

de Leve says that another problem for competitors lies with the huge variability of impairments. They have Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a connective tissue disorder. This impairment can vary from day to day, depending on numerous factors, and it’s also very hard to assess in evaluations. The hypermobility characteristic of the condition is also an issue—investigators may say increased flexibility gives athletes an edge, but de Leve argues that it can actually be “disadvantageous in swimming,” because “you need to exert additional levels of muscular control and strength” to achieve optimal form. In one classification exam, the classifier accidentally popped de Leve’s wrist, demonstrating the dangers lying at the extreme of hypermobility.

“You have to remember that the classification system is really narrow: It was devised for people with [cerebral palsy], people with [spinal cord injuries], people with missing limbs, and people with achondroplasia. It just wasn't built to include people with other conditions,” says Lisa Egan, who competed in adaptive swimming in the 1990s in the UK. Egan has osteogenesis imperfecta, which placed her in the “short stature” category. "Discrimination is built right into the very heart of the system,” she claims, because drawing up an arbitrary list of broad categories and subclassifications inevitably leaves out “millions of potential diagnoses.”

That’s a frustration de Leve shares, feeling very excluded from the Paralympic movement because of a classification system that isn’t inclusive. “I’m not looking at sports competition right now in adaptive sport. It breaks my heart,” says de Leve, who argues that much of the classification process is “pseudoscientific.” Deep, evidence-based research into how disabled bodies move, a wider range of impairments than those currently recognized by the IPC, and how varying levels of impairment affect athletes is necessary. Gilette muses that things like brain scans could someday provide information about levels of visual impairment, illustrating the role of science in Paralympic classification.

“It was such a wonderful thing to go up and have disabled peers,” says Mox, who, like many other Paralympic athletes, found a sense of community amongst people with similar disabilities. Connecting with people who share that deep mutual love of sport shouldn’t be so challenging, says de Leve, who hopes the IPC will introduce a more scientific approach to classifications as it expands and advances disability sport.

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