Choppy Waters? Classification and Paralympic Swimming Part 1

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Classification is the foundation of modern competitive Paralympic Sport.  It is the basis on which athletes are assessed according to the nature of their impairment.  An assessment is carried out so that athletes can be grouped together and compete against athletes who have a similar functional ability.  The IPC website opens its webpage on classification by saying “Challenging the interests of para-sport is the threat of one sided and predictable competition, in which the least impaired athlete always wins.”

I agree.  Classification is not without its difficulty.  The nature of impairment does not lend itself for straightforward comparison, and for this reason sports use several different categories of classification.  Swimming, for example, has no fewer than 14 broken down as follows:

s1-s10: Physical impairment

-s11-13: Visual impairment

-s14: Intellectual impairment

There have been instances where the classification process has been challenged.  Yesterday it was reported that UK Athletics would investigate the classification of athletes following concerns from those including Baroness Tanni Grey Thompson that the system can produce unfair results. I have wondered if the same thing could be said of other sports.  So I decided to have a look into swimming.

This is a sport I know well, having lived with a former Paralympic Swimmer, represented Paralympic swimmers and followed the sport for a number of years at a local, national and international level.   From these experiences, I knew there was anecdotal evidence of problems with the system.  There have also been widely reported examples where problems have been highlighted.  Mallory Weggemann, for example was reclassified from an S7 to an S8 after having broken many world records, only to win gold in her new class competing alongside those with less severe impairments than previously.

In swimming, you would generally expect times to improve over time, as in any other sporting competition.  There is of course the odd exceptional athlete who will come along and raise the bar.  There are also potential other reasons for changes in times such as changes in an athletes impairment or coaching.  In order to see how results have developed over time I downloaded the IPC World Rankings from 2011 to 2015 and analysed the data.  Looking at patterns in the results and comparing the year on year performance of athletes allowed an understanding of what you might expect to see in an event.

The results of my analysis concerned me.  After a first sweep of the data, I decided to concentrate on events for male athletes in classes 1-5.  I focused on the top 3 times in the world in each year.  I will publish the results of a similar exercise with the female events in due course.  The headline results were as follows:

Events examined: 41

Events following an expected pattern: 23 

‘flagged’ due to questionable times: 18

I was concerned at the number of events in my analysis that were flagged. Examples of events that were flagged included where the first placed athlete had beaten the second placed athlete with a significant time gap (more than 30 seconds in some instances) or where the performance of an athlete had changed significantly in a 12 month period (in one instance an athlete who had been competing internationally knocked 30 seconds off his time, which is unusual to say the least.)  Though I have not published the full findings here, I am happy to share my results in full if you wish to see them.

These results suggest significant issues with the classification of athletes with higher levels of impairment in swimming.  More must be done to ensure that the systems in place are fit for purpose and maintain the integrity of the competition.  As the IPC say themselves, it should not simply be the least impaired athlete who wins.  We owe it to Paralympic sport to see that those who make their way onto a podium are there due to ability, not a flawed system.


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About the Author

Chris Whitaker was born and grew up in Cheshire, arriving in the world with cerebral palsy after a complex childbirth. Apparently, he was lucky to be here at all and has tried to make the most of life ever since! Chris has worked in the third sector for a few years now and is also a charity trustee. Making a positive difference every day is what drives him and he gets to see the impact the third sector makes. Chris has also been able to use his own lived experience as a disabled person to make an input into his working life.

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