London 2012 Paralympics New Rules

Paralympics London 2012Effects of the New Paralympic Rules for 2012 on the Fairness of the Competition

There have been a number of rule changes for the Paralympics in 2012 that will have a significant impact on the whole event as well as individual sports. Many of these rule changes have been controversial, and could have a fundamental impact on the fairness of the results either positively or negatively.

The Problems of Paralympic Fairness

This issue of fairness at the Paralympics is much more complicated than that of The Olympics. The Olympics has a relatively level playing field; assuming no illegal substances are being taken competitors are differentiated only by their training and genetic variations (and of course Lady Luck). However, there are almost infinite disabilities that can occur to humans to cause them to be put at a disadvantage to able bodied athletes, and the Paralympics has to try and cater for all types of disabilities.

But is it fair that someone missing an arm is able to race 100m against someone who is missing a leg, or someone who is in a wheelchair? Clearly each of these three athletes are at a significant disadvantage compared to able bodied athletes and should be in the Paralympics, but to all race against each other in the same event would also clearly not be a fair and would not prove viable. As a result, the Paralympics sets out a number of classifications to try and put athletes into groups of similar disabilities to try and create a more equal playing field for each event, creating fairer competition and a viable Paralympics.

These classifications are continuously evolving as the Paralympics attempts to include more athletes, make the events fairer, while also increasing competitiveness. It is with this backdrop that the new changes to the Paralympics rules must be assessed, and whether they have compromised the fairness of competition. One of the problems that face both the Olympics and Paralympics is keeping the events competitive. In many sports, such as swimming and cycling, there are many different types of races, such as different distances. However, if you have too many events that are similar, or too many that do not have many people competing, then the level of competition is diminished. Classifications within the Paralympics add a further dimension to this problem. While it may be fairer to separate two types of disabilities into separate events so they can compete on an equal playing field, if there are very few people with that disability then the competitiveness of that event is not viable. The Paralympics therefore has to create enough classifications to provide suitably fair but substantially competitive events, and has often had to compromise one for the other.

Classification Developments

Functional ability classification was brought in during the 1980s to help this problem. Instead of assessing the disability of an athlete and providing a suitable competition category, which inevitably lead to very many numbers of events, at recent games athletes have had their ability to participate in a sport assessed as a whole and given a rating. This allows athletes of different impairments to compete together as their overall ability to compete in a sport is judge to be similar. Some Paralympic sports use this functional classification solely, others combine a separation based on type of disability and then a classification based on functional ability. Some team sports have developed this further by introducing a collective disability points system. This works by giving each athlete a disability points score, and then limiting the total score a team can have from the players on the field at any time. For example, basketball assigns a points rating of 0.5-4.5, with 0.5 being the highest disability rating, to competitors and each team cannot exceed a total disability rating of 14 points. This enables athletes of varying disabilities to play together in the same competition, allowing for increased competitiveness while maintaining an even playing field across teams.

The problem with the Functional Ability system of classification is that it leaves classification down to opinion rather than clear criteria. Whereas the loss of an arm or an inherent medical condition are clearly defined and relatively simple to group athletes together accordingly, the amount by which a disability inhibits an athlete’s ability to compete in a particular sport is far less clear and more difficult to assess. An integral knowledge of both the sports event in question and the disability needs to be known if a fair assessment of each athlete is to be made. This can prove difficult as the amount of people with suitable expertise in both areas is limited.

Fairness Variations Across Paralympic Sports

Although the classifications for the Paralympics is outlined by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), the classifications for athletes in different sports and their events are decided by the governing bodies of each sport. This is due to the need to have an explicit understanding of the sport in question when assessing an athlete’s Functional Ability rating. However, this can cause problems in creating fair opportunity for disabled athletes across all sports. Each individual sport will look to maximise competition while maintaining a level playing field, and a large part of this will be determined by the number of competitors of certain types of disability. As a result, people with some types of disabilities will be able to compete in some sports but not others where there are not enough competitors of a similar level of disability to compete in the sport. Unlike in the Olympics, where a competitor can switch to a different event within their sport if their event is dropped for competition reasons, a disabled athlete is more restricted by their disability and may not be able to switch to the other events. The fundamental nature and objectives of the Paralympics therefore requires individual sports to compromise more on the competitive considerations when making classifications choices to ensure that fairness of opportunity is maintained.

Developments for London 2012

Classifications within Paralympic sports continually evolve. This was highlighted starkly at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, where classifications for events changed during the competition, causing widespread criticism. Finalising classifications in advance has therefore been a key objective for London 2012 to make sure this does not happen again, keep competition equal throughout a Paralympic event and to keep the competitions fair and viable.

Another major development for the London 2012 Paralympics has been the reintroduction of Intellectual d Disabilities (ID) as a category. Following a scandal at the Sydney Paralympics in 2000, where several members of a team competing for Spain in Basketball were found to have been included even though they had no intellectual impairment. This resulted in them having to hand back their gold medals and the classifications were removed due to inadequate testing for this type of disability. However, in November 2009 the International Paralympic Committee (IOC) voted to reintroduce the classifications, and several sports are now looking to integrate Intellectual Disabilities into their range of classifications. These will be announced at some point in 2011, but in the mean time London Paralympic 2012 organisers have been working to introduce more robust measurements and testing of learning impairments, with top Sports Science researches at leading Universities, such as Loughborough University, working on robust computerised testing that will be more accurate. This is important to maintain the fairness of competition for Intellectually Disabled athletes, due to the increased difficulty in assessment because to the nature of the Disability, and to restore its credibility moving beyond to other Paralympic Games.

There have been a number of developments within the Paralympic Sports, with the most significant and most controversial coming within cycling. Classifications within at least seven events for cycling have been combined by the international Cycling Union (UCI), which has caused a fundamental change in the way medal winners are determined.

Making these classifications race together has inevitably caused a fairness problem, as it has increased the range of severity and nature of disabilities. To counter this, medals will be awarded to performances in relation to world records in each classification prior to the Paralympics. This potentially gives classifications with lower world records an advantage as they would not have to race as fast. It has also meant that athletes in some classifications would have to race close to Olympics times for the same event to match performances in other classifications if those world records, which are relatively much less competitive, are broken. This has lead to many athletes, particularly those within the British Cycling team, who topped the table in Beijing, deciding not to break any world records before the Paralympics other than behind closed doors as it could make their task of winning gold much more difficult.

The change was made to increase competitiveness and to make competitions fairer, applying performance results assessment in relation to a person’s disability rather than just the absolute result. However, this is a fundamental shift in the way winning medals at any Olympic event is decided, and many argue that the new system is less fair, not more., especially since athletes with a greater disability but currently have a better world record than athletes with less disability will now have to perform even better compared to athletes that belong to the lower disability category. Lobbying against the new developments has been continuous since its announcement in June 2010 to try and get the changes cancelled.

In athletics, at the end of Beijing it was decided that a new points scoring system to assess performances of athletes was needed, one that was more robust, flexible and transparent. For London 2012, the ‘Raza System’, developed in the UK, has been adopted as well as for all international competitions from April 2010. The new system provides much greater cross-over between classifications as well as allowing an assessment of performance from the points scored, not just calculating points from performance. This will improve fairness by making the points scoring for each competition more accurate and even. The ability to compare results independent of the classification the athlete is competing in will be assessed with anticipation to see how robust and reliable it is, and whether its application can be expanded to other sports. Development of the system for use at a lower level of competition is also underway in order to improve fairness at these levels while also providing a better guide in spotting talent for the future.


R. Harris

Bsc Physical Education, Sports Science and Physics, Loughborough University Founder


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