Athlete classification in paralympic sports to be reviewed *H&H Plus*

  • The International Paralympic Committee has pledged to focus on classification to keep up with the growth of the movement around the world

    Improving classification is to be a “top priority” over the next two years, a leading figure in para sport has pledged.

    Classification underpins para dressage, with riders allocated one of five grades depending on their physical ability. The FEI spells out the criteria for each grade in para dressage, which is underpinned by the International Paralympic Committee’s (IPC) international standard for physical impairments.

    This means any changes by the IPC could affect both individual riders and para dressage as a whole.

    “As a board, we know more can be done to further develop classification,” said IPC president Andrew Parsons at the organisation’s general assembly in Bonn (26 to 27 October). “We cannot continue what we’ve been doing for the past 20 years as the movement has grown and moved on a lot.”

    That change is not likely to happen ahead of Tokyo 2020, but could be started by the end of next year.

    The IPC governing board has committed to consultation on timelines for changes to the classification rules for sports on the Paralympic programme. This will start following the extraordinary general assembly in December 2020.

    Eight-time Paralympic gold medallist Sophie Christiansen told H&H a review of the rules would be a positive step.

    “Classification is quite a taboo subject,” she said, adding that a review of the current rules, as well as more transparency and an improved way of querying classification decisions, could benefit the sport.


    “Only the rider and the classifier will know the full extent of the disability and the classifier is in the best place to make the decision around classification. But it is still quite subjective and that is what worries me.

    “Since 2012, there has been a massive influx of para riders, which is amazing and really what we want as a sport. But I’m not sure the classification system can keep up.”

    Sophie added she is not “pointing fingers” and wants to work with the relevant organisations to help move the sport forwards, which she has been doing as part of her role on a classification advisory group for the British Paralympic Association.

    She also stressed her concerns with the current system are not to do with who she personally may be competing against, but for the benefit of the sport’s future.

    “This is not about me; this is about wanting to protect grade one because these riders [who cannot compete above walk] have nowhere else to go,” she said. “We have to compete in para classes or nothing.

    “Throughout my whole career, I have competed against grade one classified riders who can trot and canter in able-bodied competitions. Obviously in grade one we only compete at walk and that, in my mind, doesn’t make any sense.”

    Triple European para dressage gold medallist Suzanna Hext told H&H she wonders whether different sports could learn from each other’s classification process.

    Suzanna is also a medal-winning para swimmer, taking silver and bronze at the World Championships this year.

    “I was quite surprised at the difference between the two processes,” she said. “I found swimming took into account the way you move in the water a lot more than riding considers how you move on the horse.”

    She added it is a tricky subject, because a person’s skill and talent on a horse or in the water is a different matter to their physical disability.

    “It is always going to be a tough subject,” she said. “Classification is a gruelling process whichever sport you go through as you are putting your body under pressure. Swimming had a massive look at its system after Rio and I don’t think that was necessarily a bad thing.”

    Suzanna was classified as S5 of the 14 grades in swimming in January. In 2018, she went through reclassification for para dressage, where she was moved to a more impaired grade (from grade three to grade two).

    “Of course, you do want it to be a fair and level playing field as far as is possible, but there are always going to be differences between one end of the grade to the other,” she said.

    “The classifiers don’t have an easy job. I found it tough when I was reclassified from a grade three to a grade two, as I want to be doing the harder movements.

    “It is something that needs to be looked at, even if just for the assurance to athletes that the process has been reviewed and it is solid.”

    H&H 14 November 2019


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