From The Wall Street Journal – September 4th
LONDON—Standing outside the Paralympics table-tennis arena at the ExCel Centre here Sunday, spectator Andrew Ure said he’d been enjoying the games, but also had “a lot of questions about it in my mind.” For instance, what’s the difference between class 32 and 34 in athletics?
In the effort to level the Paralympic playing field, a group of doctors, psychologists and sports biomechanists must divvy up the 4,200 athletes into groups of roughly equal ability.
The goal, say Paralympic officials, is to ensure that medal winners succeed because of their training, skill and mental focus—not because they have a milder disability than their rivals.
“We have to ensure fair competition,” Philip Craven, president of the International Paralympic Committee and a former British Paralympian, said at a media workshop last week at the Museum of London Docklands. “That’s the principle from where we’re coming.”
But this isn’t always explained to spectators. At venues around London during the first four days of the Paralympics, parallel events in different classes—such as repeated 50-meter backstroke races at the Aquatics Centre—were introduced just by class number.
“To give a number is less interesting to people than to say, this is an athlete with such and such a disability,” said Ure, a London-based consultant, who added that he didn’t understand why in some classes athletes in wheelchairs competed against opponents who didn’t use chairs but had dwarfism.
Brendan McMullan, a spokesman for the London organizing committee, said it does attempt to inform spectators about classification, through emails before events, online, in daily programs, through in-ear radio commentary at some venues and via films shown at the start of each session.
But the media workshop demonstrated that classification is a bit complicated to explain quickly. It involves multiple stages and testers, and occasional appeals. To pull it off, classifiers have to contend with evolving abilities—as well as with outright cheating.
Lying about a physical disability is difficult because part of classification involves observing athletes in competition. “When you go onto the floor, it’s difficult to hide the function that you have,” said Alan Ash, a retired British wheelchair-rugby player.
Amir Laksari, a founder of Hackney Sparrows Wheelchair Basketball Club, a London team that plays in the London borough of Hackneynot far from Olympic Park, said that at lower levels of the sport cheating is common. “I’ve been to tournaments in Spain and Italy where they’ve had one-pointers who can walk,” Laksari said, referring to the sport’s classification system in which one-pointers have the least function. However, he added, “at the Paralympics, they crack down. It’s a competition issue. In order to cut the drama and humiliation, they get it right.”
Classification by ability occurs in many Olympic sports, as well—between men and women, or between different weights of athletes in combat and lifting sports—but not to nearly the same degree as in the Paralympics. One result: There are a lot more medals to be had in the Paralympics, with 503 medal events compared to 302 in the Olympics, which had 150% more athletes.
One of the toughest parts of the classification process is finding a balance between subdividing athletes into increasingly smaller pigeonholes, to better place them among peers of the same ability level, while ensuring there are enough athletes in each classification to make it competitive.
Classification used to be pegged to minute differences between athletes, said Anne Hart, chairperson of the IPC classification committee. Before 2007, it was based on medical categories, a byproduct of Paralympic sport’s roots in rehabilitation at England’s Stoke Mandeville Hospital. Since then, in a bow to the Paralympic movement’s increased emphasis on elite sports, classification has been based more on sports function. That means two athletes without lower-limb function—one because of a spinal-cord injury and one because of amputation of each leg above the knee—could compete in the same class, whereas previously they used to be separated.
Making classification even more specific would increase fairness, but there are limits to what is practical. “It’s all about economics, and the number of events you can have,” said Jan Burns, head of eligibility for Inas, a nonprofit that oversees classification for intellectual disability.
One way to ensure athletes compete on a fair playing field while reducing the number of events is to combine classes, but adjust athletes’ scores based on the extent of their disability. The Paralympics does this in some athletics events, such as discus throwing—which means the competitor who throws the discus the farthest may not win gold, if another thrower with a more severe disability exceeds expectations for his class.
That can make for opaque results, though. It’s not obvious to the crowd who won, but instead it’s based on applying a formula to the raw totals. Omega, the Paralympics sponsor and official scorekeeper for the games, erred in tallying the scores for the F35/36 women’s discus by using an outdated formula, which meant the gold medal was awarded to the wrong athlete on Friday. Omega and the London organizing committee subsequently apologized for the blunder.
“I must say it was a bit unfortunate,” said Masoom Raza, a senior analyst with U.K. Athletics, who developed the formula for adjusting scores, called the Raza System, that was adopted before these games. He said overall the system has worked well and can be adapted for more sports to streamline the competition. That is up to the IPC, though, and spokesman Craig Spence said the organization is moving in the opposite direction: “Our aim for future games is to try eliminate combined events so that it is clearer to all on who is the winner.”
In team sports, subdividing athletes further has fewer downsides than in individual events. Rather than competing in different classes, teams in wheelchair basketball and rugby must field teams on the court with a maximum total ability score. The higher an athlete’s classification number, the greater his ability—so players with lower numbers must share the court to keep the total score down.
Even wheelchair basketball’s nine classification groups leave room for advantages on the edges. “If you’re on the high end of 2.5, vs. the low end of 3.0, that’s an advantage,” said Jeremy Lade, an American wheelchair-basketball player, although he added that the mix of players on the floor is more important than getting a slight edge in classification. Lade is classified as a 2.5.
When athletes object to their own classification or to an opponent’s, they can protest—as 25 athletes did at the Beijing Games. “There might be an athlete who slips through,” said Hart. “I’ve probably made a mistake or two in classifying.”
By: Carl Bialik
* See also previous post *
*Also a link to The Mirror’s excellent information page where you can find answers to all your questions about the Paralympics….*