Analysis by Jeff Commings
PHOENIX, Arizona, August 30. IN the recent hubbub regarding several athletes who have been reclassified for competition at the London Paralympics, a common question has arisen: What in the heck is this classification system?
The simple breakdown is this: An athlete's physical disability and its effect on their performance in a particular sport puts them into a certain class. This allows each Paralympian the opportunity to race only those who live with the same disability, as well as the knowledge that one swimmer doesn't have a distinct advantage.
That means Paralympic greats Jessica Long and Natalie du Toit will never race each other, nor will Benoit Huot and Justin Zook. This classification system has been around since the Paralympics in 1992, and few, if any, athletes complain about it. And why should they? I'd do anything I had to do to make sure I was cleared to swim in the biggest meet of my life.
My only connections to the Paralympics were mingling with a few Paralympians in 2008 at the United States Aquatic Sports convention and interviewing a few others over the years. Each of them exemplifies the epitome of perseverance and overcoming adversity, and from what I understand, getting through the classification system at the Paralympics is yet another obstacle in their way towards glory.
If you are new to the Paralympic classification system, here's a breakdown of the classes used in this year's event:
Swimming has three disability groups: physical, visual and intellectual. The intellectual group disability applies to those with mental impairments, and was removed from use in 2004 and 2008, while a better classification system was created.
It should be noted that an athlete can be a part of different classes during the Paralympics, as their disability may affect their performance differently in each stroke (i.e. an athlete with the use of one leg might be in a different class for a freestyle event than a breaststroke event). Swimmers are previously classified on three criteria: a physical evaluation, a technical evaluation to determine an athlete's sport-related functions and an in-competition evaluation.
The freestyle, butterfly and backstroke events are classified 1 through 10 with an “S” before each number. The breaststroke events have an “SB” before the class number, and the individual medley has “SM” at the beginning of the classification. In the following descriptions, the “S” classification will be used, though the type of athlete in that category is used for and “SM” categories, with a lower number used for the same athletes in the “SB” category.
The S1 through S10 classes are for those with a physical impairment. The S1 category is for those with the most severe physical disabilities, such as paralysis or polio. The only event contested in this classification at the London Paralympics will be the men's 50 backstroke on September 6.
The S2 category features athletes who have use of their arms, but no control of their hands, legs or torso. The difference between S2 and S1 is the better propulsion capabilities the S2 swimmer may have in his or her arms. The women will only contest the 50 backstroke in London, while the men will swim freestyle, backstroke and breaststroke at the meet.
The S3 category is a minor step up from the S2 category in that athletes have minimal use of their hands, along with use of their arms, but no use of their torso or legs. According to the International Paralympic Committee, swimmers must show “reasonable arm strokes” to compete in this category. Athletes with three limbs amputated can also compete in this classification, as well as those with severe limb loss in all four limbs. The men will compete in a 150 individual medley in this classification, which includes 50 meters each of backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle. Athletes in this category can compete in a 50 butterfly individual event, though it is not being contested in London.
Athletes in the S4 category have use of their arms and better use of the hands compared to S3 athletes, but no control of their torso and legs. This category also features a 150 individual medley (no butterfly).
Video of the men's S4 150 individual medley from Beijing:
The S5 category features athletes who have full use of their arms and legs, or those with short stature. Daniel Dias, who was born with malformed arms and legs, competes in this category. He won the most gold medals of any Paralympian in 2008, taking four golds, in addition to four silvers and a bronze. (He won gold in the 50 freestyle today in world record time.)
Video of the S5 men's 200 freestyle from Beijing:
Some leg use is a requirement for the S6 category, with full arm and hand use, with some limited trunk use. Descriptions of the conditions eligible for this category are vague, though the category can also include those with short stature. The legendary American Paralympian Erin Popovich, who was born with a disorder that restricted the growth of her limbs, competed in this category at the 2000 Sydney Paralympics. She won two golds and three silvers in this category. In 2004 and 2008, she was reclassified into the S7 division.
The S7 category is one of the most restrictive, calling for amputation in one arm and one leg on opposite sides, double leg amputations or paralysis of an arm and leg on the same side. It's unclear how Popovich fit into this classification in 2004 and 2008, since her disability was not due to amputation or paralysis.
Swimmers with no hands, or who have no use of one arm, compete in the S8 category. Those with severe joint restrictions in the legs compete here as well. Jessica Long, already a winner in the 100 butterfly in London, has competed in this class since 2004, collecting eight golds, a silver and a bronze along the way. Long was born with a defect that left her born without a fibula bone in both legs, requiring amputation below the knee. Her successes have won her the 2007 Sullivan Award and recently, a commercial spot for Coca-Cola.
Video of S8 women's 100 butterfly from Beijing:
The S9 category deals strictly with leg-related disabilities. An athlete can be a double below-the-knee amputee, have one leg amputated or have joint restrictions in one leg. This category has been Natalie du Toit's playground since the 2004 Olympics, where she won 10 gold medals and one silver. She made it 11 golds earlier today with a win in the 100 butterfly. Du Toit was an established able-bodied swimmer in South Africa before a traffic accident caused her left leg to be amputated. In addition to her Paralympic success, she garnered praise for being the first amputee to compete in the Olympics, swimming the 10K in Beijing. (Yes, this was just as big a deal as Oscar Pistorius' running on the track this year.)
Video of the S9 women's 100 butterfly from Beijing:
The final category in the physical impairment classification is S10, and disabilities include loss of a hand or foot, or limited hip movement (which could affect performance in all strokes). Canada's Benoit Huot competes in this classification. He was born with club feet, which will affect him mostly on breaststroke. He won the 200 IM today in a 2:10.01, taking his third gold in this event.
Watch Huot's interview on “The Morning Swim Show” after setting a world record earlier this year:
Visual impairment only uses three classification numbers: 11, 12 and 13. The lower number indicates complete or nearly complete blindness, while those in the 13 category have some blindness. Those in the 11 category must swim while wearing blacked-out goggles, in order to level the playing field in that category. Those swimmers are notified when they reach the wall with a tap on the head by a “tapper” on deck. It's likely many of these swimmers don't need a tapper, training daily to know their stroke count, but it is required in the rules.
Video of the S11 men's 100 butterfly from Beijing:
The S14 category, for those with intellectual disabilities, is making its return to the Paralympics after a two-Games hiatus as officials worked to determine an acceptable classification procedure. The exact type of intellectual disability required to compete in the Paralympics is not clear, though the Special Olympics gives a complete list of the mental impairments that warrant inclusion into their competition.
It's quite obvious that the Paralympic classification system will have its flaws, and will continue to have many detractors. But it cannot be argued that is a necessary system to ensure as level a playing field as possible. I cannot imagine the time and effort it must take from all sides to make sure each athlete is placed in the right category. It is not as easy as putting a boxer on a scale and knowing instantly which weight class he will fight in that day. And it makes the plight of the Paralympian all the more astonishing.