Para-athletes are placed in categories for competition based on their impairment, these are called sport classes. The Classification system determines which athletes are eligible to compete in a sport and how athletes are grouped together for competition.

Information on early classification is being catalogued from now until September 2019 and more details will be available then.

Classification of athletes in the 1970s

Physiotherapists had to help with the classification of athletes because they had the best sense of the level of each patient’s injury. The class in which an athlete competed was determined by the level of their lesion, but later on other factors were included. As the games became more competitive so the advantage of being in a lower classification became an issue. On occasions some would cheat and pretend to be more disabled by feigning not to be able to balance; by a wheelchair racer pretending not to have any abdominal muscles; or by swimmers disguising flickers in their legs. Physiotherapists now no longer do games classification; it requires specific training and is increasingly done by doctors or sports coaches. It is another example of the ongoing ‘professionalisation’ of the Paralympics movement.

An interview with Tara Flood on classification

Tara Flood competed in the games at New York, Seoul and Barcelona between 1984 and 1992, taking gold and the world record at Barcelona in the Les Autres class 50 metres breast stroke

Interviewer Jon Newman

Extract: How did the classification work?

When I was swimming the Blunqvist classifications had been created by a Dutch healthcare professional of some description. From memory the Les Autres classification is the one that the classification system that is used now was based on. The reason being, because Les Autres was not just people with Cerebral Palsy, people with particular impairments, it was a whole collaboration of disablepeople and in many ways it needed to have classification system that was able to handle that so that swimmers with particular impairments were able to swim against swimmers with other impairments but with some degree of equity.

So the classification system that Les Autres pioneered was the one that was then adopted, no doubt with adjustments, as the basis for the one that is used now.

Because there was a need to categorise people it was never about impairment, it was about muscle-power, limb-length, horribly, horribly medical. I remember numerous times being classified and reclassified, having my arms and legs measured. And you know something, there is something so dehumanising about that, almost being seen as (I remember each classifier was medically trainedand there was always a process of getting up on a GP-type hospital bench, really like some kind of medical examination.

But at the time I think we all knew that it was one of these necessary evils, if you like, that this is the process you have to go through, the barrier you have to jump over to be able to compete - but I don’t think anyone liked the process, because there is so much about the power relationship in it. The disabled person is clearlthe disempowered person in this relationship; the medical person, as always for disabled peopleis the person with all the power, the person who decides where you fit within the classification system.

And as an individual my view now about disabled people is that no one else is able to talk about me and my impairment better than me – and why wouldn’t that be the case? But in those situations you have no power, no involvement in that conversation, you play no part in it other than to be, for want of a better expression, a slab of meat on the table. And that’s how I felt, I never liked it; and I remember therwas a number of times in the early days of international competition where my classification was challenged and there was an intention at one point to try and take me from Les Autres classification into an Amputee classification and I just remember being absolutely devastated that I was somehow being labelled as something entirely different from how I saw myself by people who probably didn’t even know my name, but just saw me and my physicality.

That probably doesn’t sound like much at all, but there was something solike I said before, something very dehumanising, and for someone to challenge that, it challenges the very things that you know about yourself. You know, it’s the most amazingly positive experiences of competition and swimming, but I don’t think I could say anything positive at all about how the classification system operates because of the imbalance of power between the classifier and the disabled person.

To download the transcript of the full interview, please click here

An interview with James O'Shea on classification