History of Classification
In 1948 Dr Ludwig Guttmann organised the first para-sport competitions, as an extension of the rehabilitation process. In the 1950s, 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 medical 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 medical diagnosis, athletes received a sport class which covered them in all sports offered. Consequently this prevented an athlete with lower limb paralysis (inability to move a part of their body), 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 1980s, supported by the demands of Games’ organising committees to reduce the number of sport classes, classification transitioned from medical to functional classification, a system still used in many para-sports today (an exception being the classification system used for athletes with a visual impairment which still remains medically based).
The main factor that determines sport class in a functional classification system is the extent to which an athlete’s impairment impacts on sport performance. As a result, athletes with lower limb paralysis, due to spinal cord injury could compete together with double above knee amputees in wheelchair races. Despite both athletes having very different impairments, their impairment equally impacts their ability to propel their wheelchair.
Functional classification is sport specific because any given impairment may have a significant impact in one sport and a relatively minor impact in another. For example, the impact of a below elbow arm amputee in swimming is far 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, para-sport has continued to mature rapidly. An athlete’s classification has a significant impact on the degree of success they are likely to achieve, and so, the concept of functional classification, based on performance, was questioned.
The Movement recognised 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 classification.
The Paralympic Movement approved the IPC Classification Code in November 2007, which defines the objective of Paralympic classification as developing and implementing accurate, reliable and consistent sport focussed classification systems” known as evidence based, sport specific classification.
Paralympic classification tomorrow - The 2015 Athlete Classification Code
The Paralympic Movement has continued its commitment to develop evidence based classification systems, so that the impact of impairment is minimised and sporting excellence determines which athlete or team is ultimately victorious.
Athletes who enhance their competitive performance through effective training will not be moved to a sport class with less activity limitation (as they would in performance classification systems).
To further pursue the betterment of the classification system the IPC launched a consultation process to revise the existing Code, in 2013. In November 2015 the Paralympic Movement approved the revised Athlete Classification Code. This Code aims to further develop evidence based, sport specific classification in all sports.