In the 1940’s when Dr Ludwig Guttmann founded Paralympic Sport as an extension of the rehabilitation process. In the 1950’s, questions were raised that “consideration must be given to whether it would not be fairer to divide sports into classes” to ensure equal competition opportunities for – at that time – athletes with higher and lower spinal cord lesions. It was the beginning of the development of impairment-based systems of classification. Sport classes reflected the structure of a rehabilitation hospital with separate classes for people with spinal cord injuries, amputation and those with other neurological or orthopaedic conditions.
Based on their medial diagnosis, athletes received a class which covered them in all sports offered. Consequently this prevented an athlete with a lower limb paresis due to a spinal cord injury competing in a wheelchair race against a double above knee amputee - despite both having fully functional upper bodies with which to propel a wheelchair.
Sport drives classification
As the Paralympic Movement matured, the focus switched away from rehabilitation and was driven by sport.
In the 1980’s, supported by the demands of Games’ organising committees to reduce the number of classes in different sports, classification transitioned from medical to functional classification, a system still used in many Paralympic sports today (an exception being the classification system used for athletes with visual impairment which still remains medically based).
The main factors that determine class in functional classification are how much an athlete’s impairment impacts on sport performance. As a result athletes with lower limb paresis due to spinal cord injury are now able to compete together with double above knee amputees in wheelchair races. Despite both athletes having very different impairments, functional classification deems the impact this has on either of them propelling a wheelchair is limited and about the same.
Functional classification is sport specific because any given impairment may have a significant impact in one sport and a relatively minor impact in another sport. For example the impact of a below elbow arm amputee in swimming is greater than in running.
Event organisers favoured functional classification as it reduced the complexity of events. In 1989, the organisers of the Barcelona 1992 Paralympic Games – the International Co-ordination Committee of World Sports for the Disabled (ICC and a pre-cursor to the IPC) and the Organising Committee - signed an agreement which stipulated that all sports at the Games were to be conducted using sports specific functional classification systems. This decision greatly accelerated the transition to functional classification systems.
At the time of this decision, many sports had not begun to develop functional systems. Given the short timeframe and absence of relevant scientific evidence, the classification systems developed were based on expert opinion. Within each of the sports, senior Paralympic classifiers (including doctors, therapists, athletes and coaches) led the development of the new systems.
Paralympic classification today
Since the widespread adoption of functional systems of classification, Paralympic Sport has continued to mature rapidly. An athlete’s classification had a significant impact on the degree of success they are likely to achieve, and the concept of functional classification, based on performance, was questioned.
The Movement recognized the need to revisit classification and in 2003 the IPC Governing Board approved a classification strategy which recommended the development of a universal classification code, giving direction for the future of Paralympic classification.
The Paralympic Movement approved the IPC Classification Code in November 2007, which defines Paralympic Classification as “accurate, reliable and consistent sport focussed classification systems”.
The Paralympic Movement is committed to the development of evidence based classification systems, so that athletes who enhance their competitive performance through effective training will not be moved to a class with athletes who have less activity limitation (as they would in performance classification system), but will be rewarded by becoming more competitive with the class they were allocated. All Paralympic Sports and candidate Paralympic Sports must have classification rules and regulations which include processes and procedures to allocate sport classes that are in compliance with the IPC Classification Code.