How the 2021 Paralympics classification system works and what the different categories mean

The 2021 Paralympics are officially under way. But how does the classification system work in para-sport – and how are athletes’ classifications defined?

Why are there different Paralympic classifications?

The idea behind classifications is to ensure that athletes compete against opponents of similar or equal impairment. Athletes are grouped together into ‘sport classes’ in an effort to create a level playing field.

The International Paralympic Committee says the classification system “has been put in place to minimise the impact of impairments on sport performance and to ensure the success of an athlete is determined by skill, fitness, power, endurance, tactical ability and mental focus”. 

How are athletes’ classifications defined?

There are 10 broad categories of impairment than each Paralympic athlete is put into – eight of them are a form of physical impairment, one for visual impairment and one for intellectual impairment.

Within these categories, there are then several sub-categories to increase the level of “fairness”. For example, there are eight sub-categories in athletics for competitors with cerebral palsy, ranging from the most to the least severe.

Classification systems differ by sport and are developed by the federations who govern the sport. Some Paralympic sports are only designed for athletes with one eligible impairment type – such as goalball which is only open to athletes with a vision impairment.

How does the classification system work?

Every athlete competing at the Paralympics will have gone through an evaluation that is conducted by authorised technical officials known as “classifiers”. 

These people have been appointed by the international governing body of each particular sport. Classifiers assess the athlete’s impairment and how it impacts on their ability to perform certain functions before assigning them to a particular class.

Classifying athletes is an ongoing process, which takes place at all major events, before and during competition. Thus, a competitor’s classification can change throughout their career as their level of impairment evolves.