One word you will hear often referring to athletes and sports at the Tokyo Paralympics is classifications — but what are they and how do they apply to the Games?
At the Olympics, in most sports competitors are grouped by gender and/or weight class.
At the Paralympics, classifications are a way for organisers to group like-with-like athletes, so people of roughly equivalent levels of impairment — or roughly equal functional ability — can compete together fairly.
Classifications are eligible to be assigned to a range of physical, vision and intellectual impairments.
To make the Paralympics fairer, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) conducted a review in 2019 of both the classification system and the process for athletes to be classified. This also included a range of eligible impairments.
- Impairment of muscle power (muscle weakness)
- Impaired passive range of movement
- Limb deficiency
- Leg length difference
- Short stature
- Hypertonia (muscle tension)
- Ataxia (uncoordinated movements)
- Athetosis (involuntary movements)
- Vision impairment
- Intellectual impairment
Impairment of muscle power
Athletes in this category have conditions that either limit or take away their ability to move or make sporting actions such as generating force — to lift, hit, push, throw or otherwise move objects.
Athletes may have spinal cord injuries such as tetraplegia (paralysis affecting arms and legs) or paraplegia (paralysis affecting the lower half of the body), or conditions like muscular dystrophy or spina bifida.
Impaired passive range of movement (restricted joints)
This category includes athletes who have restricted movement or tightness in a joint or joints due to conditions such as joint fusions.
For athletes who have partial or missing bones and joints. This may be due to complications at birth, or due to later amputations because of illness or trauma.
Leg length difference
This category is for athletes who have a significant difference in leg length caused by either a deficiency at birth or later trauma.
Athletes with short stature have a reduced standing height and length in bones in their arms, legs and / or trunk. This can be caused by bone growth disorders like achondroplasia.
Hypertonia (muscle tension)
Athletes with increased muscle tension and reduced ability for muscles to stretch, usually caused by damage to the central nervous system. This can be from conditions such as cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury or stroke.
Ataxia (uncoordinated movements)
Athletes in this category have uncoordinated movements due to damage to the central nervous system. This can be from conditions such as cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, stroke or multiple sclerosis.
Athetosis (involuntary movements)
This category involves athletes who have slow involuntary movements from conditions such as cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury or stroke.
Athletes with impairment of the eye, optic nerves or pathways, or the vision area of the brain, resulting in vision loss.
This can be caused by a number of conditions including macular degeneration, cone rod dystrophy and retinitis pigmentosa.
Athletes will have a wide range of impairment, which can be as manageable as requiring contact lenses or glasses, or as severe as full blindness.
There is a basic three-category classification system for the various sports that are open to visually impaired competitors, such as football (five-a-side), goalball and judo.
In other sports like athletics and swimming, which include sections for visually impaired athletes, the classifications will be numbered 11-13, where 11 is for the most seriously impaired athletes and 13 for the least seriously impaired.
Visually impaired swimmers are usually assisted by “tappers”, who warn swimmers by tapping them on the shoulder with a pole to alert them about the approaching wall and the need to turn or make the touch.
The basic categories are:
- B1: Athletes must have no ability to perceive light in either eye, or some ability to perceive light, but an inability to recognise the shape of a hand at any distance or in any direction.
- B2: Athletes in this classification are able to recognise the shape of a hand to a standard of vision of 2/60 and/or have a field of vision of less than five degrees.
- B3: Athletes in this classification have a standard of vision between 2/60 and 6/60 and/or a field of vision greater than 5 degrees and less than 20 degrees.
This refers to a limitation in intellectual functioning and adaptive behaviour shown in conceptual, social and practical adaptive skills, which is observed before the age of 18.
Intellectual disability sport classifications were removed from the Paralympics after the Sydney Games in 2000. This followed the scandal of the Spanish basketball team, which was stripped of the gold medal after it was revealed that 10 members of the team had only posed as having an intellectual impairment.
The classification was only restored in 2010 in time for the Paralympics in London two years later.
So, how do the classifications apply by sport?
Classifications are assigned to the above eligible impairments in order to create fairness in competition.
Numerical classifications are then used to cater for differing levels of impairment — or to put it another way, to cater for differing levels of functional ability.
The ability to hold a bow steady in archery, to hold and swing a racquet in tennis, to manoeuvre a wheelchair, move around a court on foot, see the course in sailing, or a myriad other important skills all have to be measured and athletes graded.
Competitors in archery are divided into two classes, W1 and Open.
- W1: These athletes are wheelchair users with impairment in all four limbs and a clear loss of muscle strength, coordination or range of movement.
- Open: This class is for wheelchair users with arms showing normal function but serious impairment in trunk and legs. Some athletes may choose to stand for the event, requiring support for balance.
Competitors in track and field events are divided into several groups of classifications.
The first letter gives you T for a track event and F for a field event.
A two-digit number is used — the first digit tells you the category of impairment and the second digit tells you the degree of impairment. Looking at the second number, the lower the number, the greater the degree of impairment.
- T11-13: Athletes in these classifications have varying levels of visual impairment. Athletes in T (and F) 11 are required to wear eyeshades to ensure a fair competition.
- T20: Athletes have an intellectual impairment
T/F 31-38: Athletes with cerebral palsy
- T32-34: These athletes compete in wheelchair racing events.
- F31-34: These athletes compete in a seated position, in a throwing chair.
- T35-38: These athletes compete in running events.
- F35-38: These athletes compete in standing events.
T/F 40-41: Athletes with short stature.
T/F 42-44: Athletes with impairment in one or both legs, often requiring a prosthetic. Also includes athletes with impaired muscle power, impaired range of movement or leg length differences.
T45-47: Athletes with impairment in one or both arms.
T51-54: Wheelchair athletes
T51-52 have impairment in upper and lower limbs, T53 have fully functioning arms but no trunk function and T54 have partial trunk and leg functions.
F51-57: Wheelchair field athletes
F51-53 have limited function in shoulders, arms and hands and no trunk or leg function, such as athletes with a spinal cord injury. F54 have normal arm and hands function. F55-57 have increasing levels of trunk and leg function.
T/F 61-64 Athletes with a leg deficiency who compete with a prosthesis.
This new event is open to players with a range of physical impairments. Players compete either standing or in wheelchairs.
The first three classes compete on a half-width court, the second three on a full-width court.
- WH1: This classification is for wheelchair players with impairment in their torso and both legs. Players hold on to the chair with their non racquet-holding hand for balance.
- WH2: Wheelchair category. These players are able to lean out of their chair to take a shot.
- SL3: Standing players category. These competitors have an impairment in one or both legs, which affects movement and balance. Players have reduced court movement.
- SL4: Standing players category. These competitors have an impairment in one or both legs, but good court movement and a good range of shots.
- SU5: These players have an impairment in one or both arms – it may be in the playing or non-playing hand. They have good court movement and shots.
- SS6: Players with short stature.
- BC1: This category is for both throwers and foot players (those who kick the balls to the jack). Athletes can have help from an assistant, who can hold the player’s wheelchair steady or adjust it, and can give the ball to the player for the next attempt, if the player asks for it.
- BC2: This category is for throwing players only. No assistance can be given to players in this section of the competition.
- BC3: This category is for players with a very advanced physical impairment. Players use a device such as a ramp to assist them and also can be helped by a nominated person at the court. However the assistant must keep his/her back to the court, so they cannot give advice on where to throw or kick the next ball to get close to the jack.
- BC4: This category applies to people with other serious impairments not covered by the three other categories. Players are not allowed assistance.
The Paralympic sport of para-canoeing involves competitors with physical impairments, grouped into three sport classes.
Events are held over distances of 200 metres. There are two categories of boats used, the kayak and the va’a (outrigger).
- KL1: Athletes in this category have no trunk function or very limited trunk function, and no leg function.
- KL2: Athletes in this category have partial leg and trunk function. They can sit upright in the kayak, and will have limited leg movement while paddling in the race.
- KL3: Athletes with trunk function and partial leg function. Athletes in this category have conditions including muscular dystrophy, spina bifida and tetraplegia.
- VL1: Athletes use their arms and shoulders to paddle and keep control of the boat. They usually have a strap around their trunk to keep them in position.
- VL2: Athletes in this category have partial leg and trunk function. They use their arms and torso to paddle, and have decreased balance.
- VL3: Athletes with a leg impairment. They use their torso and arms to paddle.
- H1-5: Handcycling — competitors race on bikes with two big wheels at either end. They sit in the middle and use a hand pump rather than pedals to propel themselves forward.
These competitors usually require a wheelchair for mobility or are unable to use normal bikes or tricycles because of severe lower limb impairment.
Cyclists in H1-4 compete in a reclining position. H1 athletes have no trunk or leg function and limited arm function. H4 athletes have no leg function but good trunk and arm function.
H5 athletes compete in a kneeling position and use their arms and trunk to make the handcycle go faster.
Tricycle sport classes
Athletes who cannot ride a bicycle due to balance issues or restriction in ability to pedal, can compete in tricycle events.
Athletes in T1 have a more serious impairment than those in the T2 category.
- TB: Visually impaired cyclists compete in events sitting behind sighted guides on tandem bicycles. B1, B2 and B3 cyclists compete in the one event.
- C1-5: Cyclists with a physical impairment such as cerebral palsy or an arm or leg amputation.
C1, C2, C3, C4 and C5 are determined based on functional ability, with separate events for men and women.
C1 athletes have the most serious impairment, while those in C5 have the lowest level of impairment.
- Grade I: These riders are mainly wheelchair users. They have poor trunk balance and/or impaired function in all four limbs.
- Grade II: Most riders are wheelchair users. They have severe movement impairment of the trunk and minimal impairment of the arms, or moderate impairments of all four limbs and the trunk.
- Grade III: Some riders may be wheelchair users. They have severe impairments in both legs with minimal impairment of the trunk, or alternatively have moderate impairments of all four limbs and the trunk.
- Grade IV: These riders have a severe impairment or deficiency of both arms or a moderate impairment in all four limbs or short stature. Grade IV also includes riders with a serious visual impairment (B1). Athletes are able to walk and generally do not need a wheelchair.
- Grade V: Riders with a mild impairment affecting movement or muscle strength or a deficiency in one limb or a mild deficiency in two limbs. Also includes athletes with vision impairment (B2).
Football: Five-a-side (for visually impaired athletes)
The five-a-side version of the sport was introduced at the Athens Games of 2004. There are no offside rules. All four outfield players, who are classed B1, must wear eyeshades.
The goalkeeper is sighted but cannot leave the area. There are three sighted guides, to direct players toward the ball when it arrives in their third of the field.
The guides are the goalkeeper in defence, the coach in midfield and another guide in attack. The football contains ball bearings to allow competitors to hear its approach.
Goalball is played by visually impaired athletes wearing eyeshades and matches are played in silence.(Getty Images: Dennis Grombkowski)
Goalball is played by visually impaired athletes — there is no formal classification, since all participants wear black-out masks to ensure fairness.
Similar to five-a-side football, the ball has bells in it to orient players. There is total silence in the arena while the ball is in play.
Visually impaired athletes compete in judo.
Players are split into weight categories rather than classifications. Athletes begin each bout holding on to each other, or gripped up.
Competition is open to athletes from all of the eight physical impairment classes. The only ineligible classes are intellectual impairment and visual impairment.
All athletes have an impairment in their leg or hips, which prevents them from competing in able-bodied (standing) weightlifting. They compete in the bench press.
Powerlifting is divided into 10 different weight divisions. The athlete who lifts the greatest weight is the winner in each division.
- PR1: These rowers have minimal or no trunk function, who use their arms and shoulders to propel the boat. They need to be strapped to the boat or seat due to poor sitting balance.
- PR2: These rowers have functional use of their arms and trunk but cannot use a sliding seat due to loss of leg function.
- PR3: Includes rowers who are able to slide a seat through residual leg function and also athletes with a vision impairment.
Competitors are divided into classes depending on their degree of trunk functionality, balance while seating, muscle strength and mobility of upper and lower limbs.
There are also events for competitors with vision impairment, who receive may audio cues to help aim at the target.
- SH1: This classification is for Pistol and Rifle competitors that do not require a shooting stand. The pistol class has athletes with an impairment affecting one arm and/or the legs. The rifle class involves athletes with impairment in their legs, such as amputations or spinal cord injuries.
- SH2: This rifle classification is for competitors who are unable to support the weight of the firearm with their arms. These competitors require a shooting stand. Some have impairments in both arms and legs. Most athletes will compete in a sitting position.
Athletes with all 10 impairment classes are eligible for swimming. Swimmers are categorised into different groups depending on their functional ability to perform a particular stroke.
Again, the lower the number, the greater the impairment’s impact on functional ability.
- S1-10: These categories are for competitors with physical disabilities.
The classes rank highest to lowest in terms of level of disability, so S1 is for the most seriously impaired swimmers, while S10 is for those with the mildest form of impairment.
- S1 SB1: Swimmers with significant loss of muscle power or control in arms, legs and hands. Some also have limited trunk control. These swimmers usually use a wheelchair in daily life.
- S2 SB1: Swimmers who rely mainly on their arms. Hand, trunk and leg function is limited due to tetriplegia or co-ordination problems.
- S3 SB2: This class includes swimmers who have amputations of both arms and legs. Also includes swimmers with reasonable arm function but no trunk or leg function, and those with severe co-ordination problems with all limbs.
- S4 SB3: Swimmers who cannot use their trunk or legs but can use their arms and have fair function in their hands. Also includes athletes with amputations of three limbs.
- S5 SB4: Swimmers with short stature and an additional impairment, with loss of control over one side of their body or paraplegia.
- S6 SB5: Swimmers with short stature or amputations of both arms, or moderate co-ordination problems on one side, etc.
- S7 SB6: This class has swimmers with one leg and one arm amputated on opposite sides of the body, or paralysis of one leg and one arm on one side. Swimmers who have some leg function but full arm and trunk movement can also compete.
- S8 SB7: Single-arm amputee swimmers can compete in this class, as well as swimmers who have extensive restrictions of their joints in hips, knees and ankles.
- S9 SB8: Swimmers in this class compete with double below-the-knee amputations, or with joint restrictions in one leg.
- S10 SB9: These swimmers have the lowest level of physical impairments allowed. Swimmers who have one hand amputated or restricted movement in one hip joint are two examples.
Vision impaired swimmers
- S/SB11-13: These categories are for swimmers with visual impairments — S11 swimmers must use blackout goggles in all events to ensure fair competition.
- S14: This category is for swimmers with an intellectual impairment.
Prefix S is for freestyle, backstroke and butterfly events. SB shows the class for breaststroke, while SM is for individual medley events.
Within classes, swimmers may start with a dive or from the water. Some swimmers will have different classifications in different strokes, depending on the necessary movement involved.
Table tennis has 11 different classifications, relating to physical or intellectual impairments.
- 1-5: These classifications are for athletes in wheelchairs, with class 1 for the most severely impaired and class 5 for the lowest level of impairment.
- 6-10: These classifications are for those who compete while standing. Again, class 6 is for the most severely impaired and class 10 for the lowest level of impairment.
- 11: This class is for athletes with an intellectual impairment.
This new event is open to athletes with a physical impairment, or a vision or intellectual impairment.
There are two taekwondo disciplines – Kyorugi (sparring) and poomsae (martial arts). Only Kyorugi events are at the Paralympics.
For athletes with restricted joints, muscle weakness or loss of limbs
- K 43: Athletes with impairments in both arms below the elbow joints.
- K 44: Athletes with impairments in one arm at the wrist or elbow or in the ankle and foot.
Only Kyorugi events for K44 and certain weight classes are part of the Paralympics – however athletes in K43 can also take part in those events.
This event was first listed on the Paralympic program in Rio in 2016. It consists of a 750m swim, a 20km cycle and a 5km run.
PTWC1 and PTWC2 (wheelchair racing para triathletes)
These athletes swim, cycle using a handbike and compete in a racing wheelchair for the run leg.
The two classes have different limits on activity based on their trunk and hip functions. They compete together using a start interval system.
PTS2-5: Ambulant (Walking) Para Triathletes
As with other sports, the higher the number, the lower the level of loss of physical function. They have a range of impairments including loss of muscle strength, loss of range of movement and loss of limbs.
- PTS2: This class includes athletes with a severe degree of activity limitation resulting from impairments of, but not limited to, limb deficiency, muscle tension, uncoordinated movements and or involuntary movements, impaired muscle power or range of movement.
- PTS3: Similar to PTS2 but with a significant degree of activity limitation.
- PTS4: Para-Triathletes in this class have a moderate degree of activity limitation.
- PTS5: In this class we have competitors with a mild degree of activity limitation.
PTVI: Athletes with vision impairment – whether PTVI (B1) to PTVI (B3) compete in the same vent using a start interval system. Competitors in this class must swim, ride a tandem cycle and run with the same (sighted) guide through the whole race.
Volleyball at the Paralympics is open to athletes with a range of physical impairments.
There are two classifications for athletes, VS1 and VS2.
- VS1: These athletes have impairments that significantly affect core functions, including ankle or higher amputation, muscle tension, stiff knee / rigidity of bones, severe cases of missing or shortened limbs since birth, uncoordinated and involuntary movements, etc.
- VS2: These athletes have impairments that affect core function to a lesser degree. This can include foot/feet amputation, stiff ankle / rigidity of bones, amputation of four digits on one hand, less severe uncoordinated and involuntary movements, etc.
There can be two players with VS2 on a team, but only one can be on court at any time. The other five on court must be VS1.
Wheelchair basketball is open to athletes with a range of impairments, including paraplegia, lower limb amputation, cerebral palsy and polio. Not all athletes use a wheelchair in everyday life.
Players are ranked on their functional ability, from 1.0 for the lowest level of mobility, to 4.5 for the highest.
- 1.0: These athletes have no trunk control and cannot move forward or sideways or rotate to catch or pass the ball. The backrest of their wheelchair is higher and they are strapped in for stability.
- 2.0: They can fully rotate and lean forward somewhat which gives them a larger area to catch the ball. They also have a higher backrest and use strapping for support.
- 3.0: Athletes who can rotate and lean forward but cannot lean to the sides. They have better balances while sitting so have a lower backrest.
- 4.0: Athletes who can move forward and rotate, and can partially lean to the sides.
- 4.5: Athletes who can move forward, rotate and lean to the sides. Athletes with a foot amputation or leg length difference qualify for this class.
Athletes are also able to be classed as 1.5, 2.5 or 3.5. Teams of five players must have no more than 14 points on the court at any one time.
Fencing at the Paralympics is open to amputee, cerebral palsy and wheelchair athletes.
To level the playing field all must compete in a wheelchair, which must be fastened to the floor at an angle of 110 degrees, which puts both competitors’ fencing arms level with each other.
The fastening to the floor means they cannot backpedal away from a lunge or attack from their opponent.
- Class 1a: Athletes without sitting balance who also have a restriction in their fencing arm.
- Class 1b: Athletes without sitting balance with less severe fencing arm restrictions than those in 1a.
- Class 2: Athletes who have fair sitting balance and a normal fencing arm.
- Class 3: Athletes with good sitting balance without the support of legs and who have a normal fencing arm.
- Class 4: Athletes who have good sitting balance with the support of legs and a normal fencing arm.
Some classes are combined:
Category A events combine classes 3 and 4
Category B events are for class 2
Category C events combine class 1a and 1b.
As with wheelchair basketball, players are ranked on their functional ability, from 0.5 for the lowest level of mobility to 3.5 for the highest.
0.5: This class is for athletes who have a significant impairment in shoulder, arm and hands movement. They catch the ball by scooping it in their lap and pass with a flick or bunt. These athletes’ main role is usually as a defender.
1.0: This class if for athletes with more shoulder strength but have an impairment with elbow, wrist and hand function. They can throw the ball but are mainly used as a defender.
1.5: These athletes have fair arm function, particularly in shoulders and elbows, They handle the ball more than the earlier classes but have wrist or hand problems which makes it hard to pass accurately or keep control of the ball.
2.0: These athletes have good shoulder strength, and can push their chairs well, but have impairment or loss of finger function so they have limited ball security. Athletes with loss of hands and forearms can also be in this class.
2.5: These athletes have good shoulder, elbow and wrist strength, some trunk muscle control and may have some ability to use fingers. They are good ball handlers and fast moving players in attack.
3.0: Athletes in this class have excellent shoulder, elbow and wrist strength, with some finger or thumb or hand weakness. Athletes may have some trunk control. They can dribble with the ball and are play makers and ball handlers.
3.5: These athletes have excellent arm strength and good hand strength. They often have some trunk muscles which allows quick movement of the wheelchair, and they are capable of throwing long, accurate passes one-handed.
Teams of four players must have no more than eight points on the court at any one time – if a female player is on the court, the team gets an extra 0.5 allowed. For example, if a team has one female player on court, they are allowed a total of 8.5 points
Athletes must have an impairment that affects at least one leg. There are two categories, open and quad.
In the quad division, the eligibility criteria requires players to have a permanent physical disability that results in substantial loss of function in one or both arms, and where at least three limbs are affected.
The open class is for athletes with other physical impairments who use a wheelchair (but do not necessarily use a wheelchair in daily life) – they need to have a permanent physical disability that means substantial loss of function in one or both legs.
Aside from the specially designed wheelchairs, the other main assistance for players (for quad athletes) is the option to have a special strap wound around their hand to help them hold the racquet.
Athletes are allowed two bounces of the ball, with the first bounce being inside the boundaries of the court.