TOKYO (AFP) – They’re supposed to make parasports fair, but the category system at the heart of disabled sports and the Paralympic Games, which ranks athletes based on their disability, is increasingly criticized.
French swimmer Theo Curin, whose lower legs and hands were amputated after meningitis as a child, is absent from the Tokyo Games due to his dissatisfaction with the system and the way athletes are assessed .
“Overnight two people who swim with both hands appeared in my S5 class. You don’t have to be very smart to understand that having both hands swimming helps a lot,” said the player. 21 years old.
“There are a lot of glaring inequalities that annoy me that are really ridiculous,” he said.
Ten types of disabilities are accepted at the Paralympic Games, broadly covering physical, visual and intellectual disabilities.
But within each category of impairment there is a huge range of abilities, so athletes are further divided by class in a system designed to ensure that people compete with others with approximately the same abilities.
In swimming, for example, each class has a prefix – S for freestyle, butterfly and backstroke, SB for breaststroke and SM for individual medley – followed by a number.
Physical impairments cover numbers 1 through 10, the lower the number, the more severe the impairment. Visual impairments range from 11 to 13, while 14 indicates an intellectual disability.
The system is complicated and time consuming, and some athletes think it is failing.
Curin was supposed to be in the Tokyo Aquatic Center pool this year, as one of France’s top para-athletes, with nearly 150,000 Instagram followers.
He made his Paralympic debut in Rio at the age of 16 and narrowly missed a spot on the podium.
But instead of chasing a medal in Japan, he shoots a film and prepares to swim across Lake Titicaca in South America.
“I have decided to put aside Paralympic swimming as long as these ranking problems persist,” he told AFP.
“They left me a little squeamish about the Paralympic movement,” said the three-time World Championship medalist.
Curin isn’t the only one who thinks the system is flawed, with a particularly fierce debate surrounding classification in the pool.
American swimming star Jessica Long, who won her 14th Paralympic gold on Saturday, said the “incentive to cheat is huge” given the growing fame and financial rewards enjoyed by successful para-athletes .
“I can’t watch this sport that I love to keep getting destroyed like this,” she told Sports Illustrated last year.
The International Paralympic Committee defends the system, claiming that “sporting excellence determines which athlete or team is ultimately victorious.”
“What is disappointing is that we have witnessed in recent years a small number of athletes … who are struggling to face increased competition,” he said.
“Rather than embracing the enhanced competitive nature of their para sport, they instead questioned the classification of their competitors, despite the fact that international classifiers found their rivals to be in the correct class.” But critics of the system point to what they say is the arbitrary and unscientific nature of the assessments involved.
The exams are “done by eye and based on the feelings of the observers,” French swimmer Claire Supiot told FranceInfo.
She was reclassified earlier this year from S8 to S9, making “the road to the podium much more difficult”.
There are also allegations of athletes trying to play with the system, trying to be placed in a more severely disabled class to gain an advantage.
In 2017, a former classifier told the Guardian newspaper on condition of anonymity that athletes took hot or cold showers, rolled in the snow or bandaged their limbs to appear to have more limited abilities during exams.
Curin underwent two sets of exams, the first of which – a medical exam – produced a provisional classification at the lower end of S4.
But after a second round in which he was observed in the water, he was awarded a final class of S5.
This, he said, penalizes him unfairly, “because I know how to work well with my disability.”