01 December, 2016

Understanding the Paralympics

Hadn't it been for Pistorius I would never have been interested in the paralympic movement. Still, when the blade runner started "making waves" in the athletics circles I started paying attention. Then along came M. Rehm with his "out of this world" 8.40 m long jump record and I felt that "augmented humans" could not be ignored anymore. I wrote two posts, one dealing with Pistorius and one focusing on Rehm. Upon researching them I found out that France had a great champion in the person of M.-A. Lefur, world and (para-)olympic champion and world record holder.

M.-A. LeFur winning the 100 m at the London, 2012, Paralympics

So, after the Rio Olympics I followed the Paralympics competitions. To tell the truth I did not follow them as systematically as the olympic ones, but after all that was the first time I was interesting myself in sports for disabled persons. (One further motivation was that the greek team had a great success in the Rio Paralympics, winning more medals than in the Olympic competition). One difficulty that I faced immediately was understanding the IPC (the acronym stands for International Paralympics Committee) classification. All these T and F categories were totally impenetrable for me. So, I decided to learn more about the classification for disabled athletes and the best way to do this was to prepare a blog article. In this way it may be a useful guide to people who face the same difficulty as myself. (You have certainly noticed that I am using the term "disabled" and not the politically correct "differently abled". I am convinced that "disabled" is not in the least derogatory. It describes a real situation and, at least for me, commands a greater respect for the persons who train and compete despite their physical handicap).

The basis of the IPC classification is the International Classification of Functioning Disability and Health published by the World Health Organisation. The main idea is to provide a system for the eligibility of athletes according to their impairment placing them into classes according to the extent of activity limitation.

There are 10 eligible impairment types:

Impaired muscle power

Impaired passive range of movement

Limb deficiency

Ataxia (lack of muscle co-ordination)

Athetosis (repetitive involuntary movements)

Hypertonia (abnormal increase in muscle tension)

Short stature

Leg length difference (minimum of 7 cm)

Visual impairment

Intellectual impairment (must be diagnosed before the age of 18)

The classification scheme assigns a letter and a two-digit number to each of the categories. First the letters: T stands for track and F stands for field. But to make things harder to understand jumps are classified as "track" and thus have a T prefix. So F stands for throws only. The numbers are related to the type of impairment (first digit) and the gravity of the impairment (second digit). As a general rule the lower the number in a given class the more severe the impairment. For instance in the class T42-44 the impairment is severest in T42 and less severe in T44. (Both LeFur and Rehm belong to the T44 category. Pistorius is a T43).

Here ere the detailed disciplines

11–13: Blind (11) and visually impaired (12, 13) athletes
20: Athletes with an intellectual disability
31–38: Athletes with coordination impairments; 31-34 for wheelchair racing or seated throwing, 35-38 for ambulant (running) events
40-41: dwarfism, multiple sclerosis or congenital deformities
42–47: Amputees; 42-44 Lower limb affected by limb deficiency, 45-47 upper limb affected by limb deficiency 
51–58: Limb deficiency

Running and jumping has 16 classes: T11-13, T20, T35-38, T40-41, T42-44, T45-47 and for wheelchair T32-34, T51-54.

Throws have 15 classes: T11-13, T20, T35-38, T40-41, T42-44, T45-46 and for seated throws T31-34, T51-58.

Given the nature of the impairments we expect a certain structure in the records. For running, the record of T13 is in general better than that of T12 which in turn is better than the one of T11. There are few performances for the T20 class and none for running and jumping for the T40-41 classes. Classes 42-47 in general have good performances in running with two great performances for the T43 class: Oliveira's 20.66 in the 200 m and Pistorius' 45.39 in the 400 m. The same pattern is reproduced in the jumping events (but more on this point latter). Wheelchair racing events are not very performant over short distances (where the wheelchair inertia prohibits strong accelerations) but become more efficient as the distance grows. Their records are better than the current world record for able athletes for distances beyond 400 m. In throwing events the men's records are in general very good in the F11-13 class as well as in the F42-46 (with the exception of T45 where the upper limb impairment is severe). For women the throwing records follow the same pattern but they are not of the same quality, most probably because the recruitment of female parathletes is not as strong as the one of men's. Clearly seated throws are at a definite disadvantage and this reflects itself in relatively modest records.

M. Rehm winning the Rio Paralympics long jump

I have mentioned above a few great parathletes. T44 M. Rehm with his 8.40 m long jump record (his 8.21 m in Rio would have won him a 5th place in the olympic competition). O. Pistorius with his 45.39 400 m record and his participation at the London 2012 Olympics. Marie-Amélie LeFur's 5.83 m long jump record was a minor deception for me. Her (slightly wind-aided) 5.84 m jump in Doha was in fact an over 6 m one from the point of take-off. So, I was hoping that she would jump beyond 6 m in Rio. Well, perhaps next time (although in her recent interviews she said that she was planning to take a year or two off).

Probably the greatest T&F parathlete is Marla Runyan. Not only was she a multiple gold medalist at the 1992 and 1996 Paralympics but also a finalist of the 2000 olympic 1500 m. She won also the 1999 Pan American Games over the same distance. She qualified again for the 2004 US olympic team in the 5 km but in Athens she did not manage to make it to the final. She holds several T13 IPC records for 400 mw with 54.46, 1500 m with 4:05.27, 5000 m with 15:07.19, high jump with 1.80 m and long jump with 5.88 m, as well as for the pentathlon. Her personal bests at 3000 m, 10000 m, and the marathon are also best world performances but, curiously, they were never ratified by the IPC. Runyan is an accomplished heptathlete and holds the heptathlon-800 m US record with 2:04.60. 

M. Runyan, paralympic champion and olympic finalist

Several more great athletes do exist. Poland's, T44, Maciej Lepiato jumped a 2.19 m world record in Rio. Jackie Christiansen's, F44, shot put record of 18.38 m goes back to 2011 while in discus throw David Blair established a new F44 record with 64.11 m in Rio. Cuba's Omara Durand holds the women's T12 world records for 100 m, 200 m and 400 m with 11.40 s, 23.03 s and 51.77 s respectively! 

O. Durand. She could have made it to the olympic semi-final in the 400 m

Oksana Zubkovska was a high and long jumper with personal bests of 1.90 m and 6.71 m before becoming a parathlete due to sight loss. She has the T12 world record with 6.60 m from Rio (but she jumped 6.70 m in June, which apparently was not submitted for homologation). Given that the T12 high jump record is a meager 1.57 m I am convinced that she can shine in this discipline as well. The same sight loss made Assunta Legnante, the 2007 European Indoor shot put champion, become a parathlete. Her personal best from 2002 is 19.20 m and she holds the F11 world record with 17.32 m.

O. Zubkovska. She could have qualified for the olympic long jump final

I cannot conclude this article without mentioning two special cases. The first is Ilke Wylluda, the 1996 olympic champion in women's discus throw and, with 74.56 m, the second all-time best performer. Having her leg amputated in 2010 she returned to athletics as a parathlete. She won bronze and silver in discus throw and shot put in the 2014 IPC Europeans but her first appearance at the Paralympics in 2012 was not a success as she finished 5th in shot put and only 9th in discus throw. Unfortunately, she was injured while preparing for Rio and she missed this year's Paralympics. The other is a 19 years old pole vaulter: Charlotte Brown. She had severe eye problems right from birth and she is legally blind from age 11 (she can see only a "jigsaw puzzle" of light and dark shades). Despite her severe impairment she is very active in sports her main discipline being pole vault where, last year, she managed to win a bronze medal in the state championships with a 3.5 m clearance. Alas, pole vault is not a discipline in parathletics but, for me, Charlotte Brown is a world record holder.

C. Brown. For her, sky is the limit 

While perusing the impairment types I was intrigued by the intellectual impairment one. It is typically defined as leading to difficulties with regards to pattern recognition, sequencing, memory or slower reaction time. How does this have an impact on performance? Two examples are provided in the explanatory guide. Middle distance T20 athletes have difficulties in pacing, while in long jump the impairment makes the anticipation of the take-off board more difficult. Still the T20 world record for men's 800 m is a respectable 1:53.63 while in the long jump the Rio winner established a world record with 7.60 m. For F20 men's shot put the record is 16.84 m. For women the corresponding records are 2:18.10, 6.09 m and 13.94 m, the last one established in Rio.

While in athletics all ten impairment types give rise to special classes in competition this is not true for other sports. Moreover each sport has specific competition classes. In powerlifting for instance intellectual and visual impairment are not eligible and there is only one class. In swimming all ten impairments are eligible and the 14 classes are distinguishing freestyle, butterfly and backstroke events from the breaststroke ones. For judo only visual impairment is eligible and all three classes compete together in one event. 

Clearly if one wishes to understand the functioning of Paralympics one has to focus on the sports one is interested in and try to understand the classification system. Still, at least for athletics, this is highly nontrivial and the only way to follow the Paralympics is by having a short summary, of shopping-list kind, close at hand. I will have to do this for the Tokyo, 2020, Paralympics.

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