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Understanding the Paralympic Games: impairment classifications in Para sport

How do the Paralympics ensure an inclusive and yet even playing field – plus why Para sports have more gold medals

Emma Steen
Written by
Emma Steen
Staff Writer, Time Out Tokyo
Paralympic Games
Photo: Hiroki Nishioka, International Paralympic Committee
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With a total of 22 sports, the Paralympic Games may feature fewer disciplines than the Olympics, but that doesn’t mean there’ll be fewer medals to be won. A whopping 539 gold medals will be up for grabs at the upcoming competition – that’s 200 more than the 339 gold medals awarded at the Tokyo Olympics. 

The reason for the difference in gold medal events is due to the classification system implemented in the Paralympic Games to ensure that the Para athletes are competing on a level playing field. 

Here's a breakdown of how the system works and why it’s necessary.

Eligible impairments 

The first component of the Paralympic classification is identifying the eligible impairments. In order to participate in the Paralympic Games, Para athletes must have at least one of the following ten impairments as outlined by the International Paralympic Committee

  • Impaired muscle power
  • Impaired passive range of movement
  • Limb deficiency
  • Leg length difference
  • Short stature
  • Hypertonia (excessive muscle tone in arms or legs that lead to difficulty in movement)
  • Ataxia (a disorder of the nervous system affecting coordination, balance and speech)
  • Athetosis (movement dysfunction such as involuntary writhing of the limbs)
  • Vision impairment
  • Intellectual impairment

Some events, like the football 5-a-side or goalball, are only open to athletes who have a vision impairment. Other sports like swimming are open to athletes with any of the 10 impairments. 

Sport classes 

The second component of classification is determining how much an impairment affects the performance of each athlete. Because the severity of these conditions vary from person to person, this secondary classification system is used so that athletes will be grouped with competitors who have similar degrees of impairment, thus minimising unfair disadvantages. 

Visually impaired athletes, for instance, are divided into three different classes (B1, B2 or B3) based on the clarity of their vision and degree of light perception. Football 5-a-side is limited to athletes who meet the criteria of the B1 sport class, where they have a very low level of clarity and/or no light perception. Goalball, on the other hand, is open to visually impaired athletes of all three classes, but requires all players to wear eye shades when competing.

Other sports like athletics, which are open to athletes with any of the ten impairments, will feature even more classes to include athletes from every category as well as different degrees of impairment. Each of the classes under every category will have its own medal event.

In some respects, these sport classes can be likened to the weight classes in boxing and judo at the Olympic Games. Just like different weight categories help determine level of fairness in tournaments, the sport classes ensure that the athletes strength and tactical ability, rather than their physical characteristics, are highlighted during the competition. 

Through this system, the Paralympics can maximise the number of participants, break down barriers and award recognition to athletes based on their extraordinary levels of skill, endurance and mental focus. 

Ready to see what the human race is capable of? Here’s a schedule for the upcoming Paralympic events and where you can stream them for free.

More on Tokyo 2020 

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11 things to know about Japan at the Paralympics

How to watch the Tokyo Paralympics online for free

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