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.