The Olympic Games in Tokyo have recently wrapped up with Australia finishing with 46 medals, including 17 gold, equaling our previous record at Athens in 2004.
With a large portion of Australians currently in lockdown, many of us will be missing having the Olympics on each day while we spend so much time at home. So how do we fill this Olympic sized hole in our days now? Thankfully, the Paralympic Games are about to start!
In recent years Australia has performed very well at the Paralympic Games, finishing 5th in 2016 with 81 medals including 22 gold!
Let’s take a look at the history of the Paralympic Games and how they operate compared to the Olympic Games.
The first official Paralympic Games was held in Rome in 1960, however sport for people living with disabilities existed well before this. One of the first recorded sporting events for athletes with a disability was in Berlin in 1888 when sporting clubs existed for deaf athletes. After WWII when many veterans and civilians were injured, more sports for people with disabilities were introduced.
Today there are 28 sports sanctioned by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), 22 in summer and 6 in winter.
Each sport has different classifications according to the degree of activity limitation resulting from their impairment. This, to a certain extent, is like grouping athletes by age, gender or weight. As different sports require different skill sets, the classifications vary between sports too. Classification aims to ensure that sporting superiority is the ultimate determination of victory by minimising impact of impairment. Accurate classification is crucial to protect the integrity and credibility of the competition.
Athletes are evaluated prior to competition and the evaluation aims to answer three key questions.
1. Does the athlete have an eligible impairment for this sport?
There are ten eligible impairments for competition including impaired muscle power, impaired passive range of motion, limb deficiency, leg length difference, short stature, hypertonia, ataxia, athetosis, vision impairment and intellectual impairment. These are further expanded on the International Paralympic Committee’s website, under classification.
These ten different classifications are often categorised under three banners which are physical impairment (comprising of the first 8 on the list), vision impairment and intellectual impairment. Not every sport allows all classification types. Some sports allow all ten impairments, some allow a selection of impairments, and some allow only one. For example, athletics and swimming allow all ten, while cycling allows a selection but not all and goalball only allows vision impairment.
2. Does the athlete’s eligible impairment meet the minimum impairment criteria of the sport?
Athletes are assessed for their suitability to compete in their chosen sport by whether they meet the minimum impairment criteria. This ensures that the athletes impairment affects the extent to which the athlete can execute the specifics fundamental to 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?
After an athlete has been determined as eligible for a sport, they then need to be assessed and classified into a specific ‘Sport Class.’ Some sports only have one class, and some have over 50, depending on the number of impairments eligible. Sport Class allows athletes with similar activity limitation to compete against each other in a way that is equitable. Sport Class does not necessarily comprise athletes with the same eligible impairment. If different impairments cause similar activity limitations those athletes will be allowed to compete together. Therefore, we often see athletes with different impairments competing together.
Physiotherapists often help form classification panels with other experts such as physicians, sports scientists, coaches, ophthalmologists and psychologists to accurately classify athletes. Classifiers must have extensive knowledge about impairments and their impact on different sports as determined by each international sport federation. If you are a person with a disability or other impairment looking to participate in sport or physical activity, a physiotherapist can help you to achieve your goals. We can assess your movement patterns, strengths and areas that can be improved, and guide you towards a suitable sport or help you to participate in the sport of your choosing.
This year, there will be 179 Para-Athletes competing for Australia across 18 of the 22 sports. 84 of these athletes will be making their Olympic debut. You can show support for the Paralympic Games first and foremost by watching them. Follow the athletes on social media and seek to educate yourself as much as possible. You can also become an official cheer squad member or purchase a virtual seat for $25 on the Paralympics Australia website at https://donate.paralympic.org.au/. The games kick off on Tuesday the 24th of August and run until the 5th of September.
About the author
Sally Lynch is a physiotherapist at Camberwell Sports & Spinal Medicine with over five years’ experience working with people with disabilities. Prior to becoming a physiotherapist, she was a disability support worker specialising in challenging behaviour support.
International Paralympic Committee. (2020). Explanatory Guide to Paralympic Classification. Retrieved 17 August 2021, from https://www.paralympic.org/sites/default/files/2020-10/2020_06%20Explanatory%20Guide%20to%20Classification_Summer%20Sports.pdf
Sygall, D. (2021). ‘Loyal, Proud, Fierce’: Australian Paralympic Team Set For Tokyo 2020 | Paralympics Australia. Retrieved 17 August 2021, from https://www.paralympic.org.au/2021/08/loyal-proud-fierce-australian-paralympic-team-set-for-tokyo-2020/
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