Understanding the Paralympic Games – Tokyo 2020/1

Every four years when the Paras come round, people are in awe of the pure athleticism displayed by the athletes across a wide spectrum of sports.

Clearly athletes’ impairments differ from person to person. So how can seriously impaired athletes compete against athletes with lesser impairments? The short answer is, they don’t.

The International Paralympic Committee [IPC] devised a system to ensure that athletes compete against athletes with similar degrees of disability.

It’s not at all like a golf handicap which allows players with less ability to be competitive against better players. The IPC classification system ensures fairness of competition by setting like against like across all competitions.

Explaining the IPC Classification System

[Courtesy of World Para Swimming]

I am often asked about the IPC classification system, so for the benefit of Disability Connect readers here is a synopsis.

Each sport has its own set of classification criteria and here we’ll use Swimming as an illustration.

The Mandeville Para Swimming coach Tadhg Slattery was during his swimming years classified as S7, SM6 and SB5. What does this mean?

  • The S category covers freestyle, backstroke and butterfly.
  • The SM category is Individual medley.
  • The SB category is breaststroke.

The numerals run as follows [The lower the number the greater the degree of impairment]:

Physical impairment

1 to 10 are for athletes with a physical impairment [S/SM 1-10, SB 1-9]

There are ten different sport classes for athletes with physical impairment, numbered 1-10. The lower the number, the more severe the activity limitation.

Athletes with different impairments compete against each other, because sport classes are allocated based on the impact the impairment has on swimming, rather than on the impairment itself.

To evaluate the impact of impairments on swimming, classifiers assess all functional body structures using a point system and ask the athlete to complete a water assessment.

The total number of points then determines the athlete’s S and SB sport classes. Due to the different demands of S and SB events, swimmers are often allocated different S and SB sport classes.

The SM sport class is calculated from the S and SB sport class.

Vision impairment

Athletes with a vision impairment compete in three sport classes from S/SB11 to S/SB13.

S/SB11: These athletes have a very low visual acuity and/ or no light perception.

S/SB12: Athletes have a higher visual acuity than athletes competing in the S/SB11 sport class and/ or a visual field of less than 5 degrees radius.

S/SB13: Athletes have the least severe vision impairment eligible for Paralympic sport. They have the highest visual acuity and/or a visual field of less than 20 degrees radius.

In order to ensure a fair competition, athletes in the S/SB11 sport class are required to wear blackened goggles.

To ensure safety all S/SB11 swimmers must use a tapper, swimmers in the S/SB12 and S/SB13 sport classes may choose whether or not they wish to use one.

Intellectual impairment

14 is for is for athletes with intellectual impairment [S/SB14]

S14 swimmers have an intellectual impairment, which typically leads to the athletes having difficulties with regards to pattern recognition, sequencing, and memory, or having a slower reaction time, which impact on sport performance in general.

Moreover, S14 swimmers show a higher number of strokes relative to their speed than able-bodied elite swimmers.

For more information and details of classification in the other sporting codes visit:


Paddy Slattery

Mandeville Para Swimming Club




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