The Rio Paralympics were successful, but the disability classifications are not

ANYONE who tuned into the 2016 Paralympic games, which were held in Rio de Janeiro in the fortnight leading up to September 18th, would agree that this year’s edition has been a success. In the days before the opening ceremony, it seemed more likely that the event would be a flop. Against the backdrop of a struggling Brazilian economy, tournament organisers overspent on the Olympic games in August, while early sales for Paralympics events were weak. With three weeks to go, just 12% of tickets had been purchased. “Never before in the 56-year history of the Paralympic Games have we faced circumstances like this,” observed Sir Philip Craven, the president of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC). To ease the budgetary crisis, Eduardo Paes, Rio’s mayor, borrowed $80m from state-run companies, and cut funding for helpers, the media and transport. Delayed travel grants of $8m for competitors in poor countries were eventually transferred; big screens around the city were dismantled.

Yet out of adversity came triumph. A last-ditch appeal to the Brazilian public worked. They flocked to the venues, snapped up cheap tickets (some for as little as 10 reals, or $3) and turned the games into the second-most attended in Paralympic history. Total sales surpassed 2m last week, topping the 1.5m sold in Beijing in 2008; the final number could rival the 2.8m record set in London four years ago. Nearly 170,000 spectators thronged to the Olympic Park on September 10th, a greater crowd than at any point during the Olympics.

The success, of course, was not limited to the stands. The class of 2016 ran faster, jumped higher and finished stronger than their predecessors: Paralympic records were set in a sixth of the swimming events, and nearly a quarter of the athletics disciplines. Remarkably, four runners in the men’s T13 1500 metres final—for athletes with impaired vision, though enough sight to run without a guide—posted better times than the winner of same event in the Olympics.

Home fans were delighted by the success of swimmer Daniel Dias, who collected nine medals, four of which were gold; he has now won 24 medals of any colour, the most of any male Paralympian swimmer. (The retired Michael Phelps, on 28, should beware. Mr Dias, aged 28, might have another games in which to beat him.) And supporters of all nationalities urged on American wheelchair racer Tatyana McFadden—who was born paralysed from the waist down, and grew up walking on her hands in a Russian orphanage—in her quest to win all seven women’s events. Ms McFadden won gold in the T54 400 metres, 800 metres, 1500 metres and 5000 metres, was part of the disqualified American team in the 4×400 metres, and had to settle for silver in the 100 metres and marathon.

As the fortnight ended, perhaps the only obvious blemish was the death of 48-year-old Iranian cyclist Bahman Golbarnezhad, who suffered a cardiac arrest in the road race on September 17th. Mr Golbarnezhad was honoured in a tribute at the closing ceremony on September 18th. The sad news of his passing was a sombre moment in an otherwise celebratory event, with fans, officials and competitors alike basking in the afterglow of an improbably excellent fortnight.

But though the last two weeks will be remembered fondly, there was evidence too of a long-standing Paralympic problem that has yet to be solved. Before the first starting gun was fired in Rio, several athletes had questioned the competition’s tricky classification system. Since participants at the games have a wide range of disabilities, from amputations to degenerative diseases to deafness and blindness, it is necessary to sort them into groups of equal capacity. The aim, in the words of the IPC, is “to ensure that the impact of impairment is minimised and sporting excellence determines which athlete or team is ultimately victorious”.

Achieving this is easier said than done. A first step has been to categorise athletes by the effect their impairments have on performance, rather than the nature of their conditions. In Rio, tetraplegics raced against amputees, and competitors with short stature against those with coordination problems. Yet equating participants with different conditions is fiddly. The Paralympic swimming federation uses a points system, which rates each subject in a number of physical and technical tests—how flexible their muscles are, how competent their dive is, among other measurements—and converts the final score into a classification. In athletics, each class has various physiological criteria that must be met. In both sports, the evaluation panel is typically made up of two observers, who must be doctors, sport scientists or experienced coaches. If necessary, the assessment can be carried out by a single official.

Even when the sorting should be comparatively straightforward, there are looming grey areas. The T51-54 athletics classes contain wheelchair racers with “no trunk or leg function”, and “limited shoulder, arm and hand functions to different degrees”. Classification in this case requires distinguishing between those with full upper-body control (T54) and those with little (T51). The same goes for the S2-4 swimming classifications, which allow no trunk or leg use but varying levels of arm mobility (S4 for the most able, S2 for the least). Yet finishing times for these categories in Rio show that some competitors could belong in multiple tiers (see chart). The men’s T51 and T52 racers are clearly separated, yet the finalists in the T53 100 metres look little different to those in the T54 event. In the women’s 50 metres backstroke, the best of the S2 swimmers would have been also-rans in the S4 final—two classes above. Some events explicitly highlight these overlaps. Male T53 racers compete in the same heats as T52 athletes in the 800m, but with the T54 group in the 1500m; some of the women’s S3 backstrokers swam in the final of the S4 freestyle.

This pattern is repeated in a number of disciplines. In each case, the winning athletes and the federations that assessed them would argue that they are exceptional performers in the right tiers, not examples of dodgy classification. Yet there is clearly an incentive for participants to seek favourable categorisations by exaggerating their disabilities during testing. The classification rules for each discipline have long passages warning against “intentional misrepresentation” when being evaluated; the IPC code has clauses that protect whistleblowers who pass on “classification intelligence” about potential cheats. No athlete can pretend to have shorter limbs or a lack of sensation in their body. Reaction times and coordination, however, might be feigned, and measuring technical ability is rarely an objective matter.

Despite the IPC’s best efforts, many Paralympians think that the system is a sham. It failed to catch 10 members of the Spanish basketball team in 2000 who lied about having intellectual disabilities and went on to win gold in Sydney. Mike Cavendish, a performance manager at British Athletics, wrote in an internal email in 2014 that some competitors “are thought to have knowingly pursued classifications that they know to be incorrect, simply to gain a competitive advantage”. David Howe, a former Paralympian runner for Canada and lecturer in sports anthropology at Loughborough University, has spoken of the incentive to “be on the right side of the thin line from the next categorisation”.

Such criticisms have not gone unheard. Peter Van de Vliet, the IPC’s medical director, has acknowledged that the system incentivises “pushing the boundaries”. Xavier Gonzalez, the IPC’s chief executive, has reiterated the group’s dedication to stamping out cheating: 80 cases of queried classifications were scrutinised before this summer’s games—with no errors found. And a revised code is set to be launched next year.

These are steps in the right direction. But given how easily categorisation can affect medal tallies, better oversight is needed. Classification panels could be beefed up to include more inspectors, or a “double blind” process could be introduced, requiring multiple panels to perform the checks independently. Testers unsure about an athlete’s honesty during evaluations could be invited to watch training sessions anonymously—or conduct assessments without warning, as with drugs tests, to prevent subjects from tiring themselves out beforehand in the hope of getting a more favourable rating.

No classification code will be perfect. The existing rules, containing page after page of medical procedures, already eliminate much of the uncertainty when it comes to physical capacity. Better scrutiny of technical prowess, however, might give Paralympians more confidence in the system. And it would allow us to pay more attention to their remarkable performances, and less to the disability codes next to their names.


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