The classification systems for the Paralympic Games and adapted sports are often portrayed as the great equalizers, attempts to even the playing field when those with different disabilities come together to compete. From the outside, this can feel like a perfect solution to a predictable problem.
In para ice hockey (formerly sledge hockey), classification is a simple in or out: Do you meet the eligibility criteria? In wheelchair basketball and wheelchair rugby, lineups are made up of athletes who are assigned a point value; a team can only have a certain amount of points on the floor at any time, and that limit constrains how many athletes of varying impairment can be on the court at once. In swimming and track, athletes with similar disabilities are grouped together for races.
The trouble is that para sports — just like non-disabled sport — are rife with inequities. Equipment is expensive, attitudes toward disabilities vary wildly around the globe, and the medical systems required to have a relatively healthy disability population are (to put it kindly) hit or miss worldwide.
One group of para sports takes a slightly different tack when it comes to balancing the field. With the 2022 Winter Paralympics beginning Friday in Beijing, it’s worth looking at how snow sports like para Nordic skiing use a factored timing system to work toward equity. It’s the clearest example of a mix between a functional classification system (what can you do?) and a medical one (what do you have?).
Athletes are placed into one of three divisions: sitting, standing or visually impaired. Within those divisions, the athletes are further classified based on functional impairment. For example, an LW2-classified athlete is affected by a disability in one leg, while an LW3-classified athlete is affected in both legs.
But the Games want to award medals in only the three separate divisions, not in each individual classification, so athletes in different classifications are competing against one another in the same race. To account for athletes’ differing impairments, every class is assigned a time-based percentage, or factor, that adjusts the race times of each competitors. Put simply, depending on the athlete’s classification, the clock runs at a different rate.
These class-based time percentages are calculated on a rotating basis based on previous results. The factored times in standing and visually impaired Nordic events vary between classic-style skiing and freestyle (or skate) skiing. Generally speaking, the higher the factored timing percentage, the less impairment an athlete has.
The question, then, is does it work? We looked at the past 10 years of world rankings in cross-country skiing and biathlon, using the aggregate of the top 10 in each end-of-year ranking from December 2012 through 2021. All things being equal, we would expect parity among the classifications, but this was not the case. Some classifications were overrepresented within a discipline and division.
Visually impaired skiers in each of their classifications seem to be represented more evenly in the top 10 rankings than their sitting and standing counterparts. In both standing and sitting, the vast majority of the top athletes are placed in the highest classifications, which indicate the lowest levels of impairment. And in races that allow athletes to choose whether they want to compete sitting or standing, such as LW12, the vast majority choose sitting. This means athletes are choosing the classification where they feel they will be more successful (and functional). At the Paralympic level — with classifications usually being entirely prescriptive — para Nordic is one of the only sets of events that allows even a small element of athlete choice.
We see roughly the same distribution among biathlon athletes as well.
This isn’t only a case of athletes in higher classifications beating out their competitors. When we look at the classifications of athletes for the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, the vast majority of entrants were in the higher classifications; some of the lower classes had only a single athlete or none at all.
There is another layer to these divisions, however. Researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology recently found that swings in performance for para skiers tend to be more pronounced than able-bodied skiers — as indicated by a more variable difference when compared to the winner. They attributed this difference to both the effects of disability and a smaller number of athletes competing. They also found that female skiers were more likely to have “larger variability in performance” than their male counterparts.
So, what does this mean for viewers who may be experiencing the sport for the first time over the next two weeks? For one, you can expect to see more LW12, LW8 and LW6 athletes than competitors in other classes. But you can also identify where the possible fault lines in this heavily researched system still lie.
Classification is, inherently, an imperfect system, and World Para Nordic Skiing says “its purpose is to minimise the impact of impairments on the activity.” The data confirms that no matter the amount of thought, math, and research that goes into a system like this, the playing field can never be truly level.