They were supposed to be about making parasports fair, but the categorization system at the heart of disabled sports and the Paralympics, which categorizes athletes based on their disability, is increasingly coming under fire.
French swimmer Theo Curin, whose lower legs and hands were amputated as a child after meningitis, is sitting out the Tokyo Games because of his dissatisfaction with the system and how athletes are judged.
“Overnight two people who swim with both hands appeared in my S5 category. You don’t have to be very smart to understand that swimming with two hands helps a lot,” said the 21-year-old.
“There are a lot of glaring inequalities that annoy me and are really ridiculous,” he said.
Ten types of disabilities are accepted at the Paralympics, broadly including physical, visual and intellectual disabilities.
But within each disability category, there is a wide range of skills, so athletes are further broken down by class in a system designed to ensure that people compete against others of similar abilities.
For example, in swimming, each class has a prefix — S for freestyle, butterfly, and backstroke, SB for breaststroke, and SM for individual medley — followed by a number.
Physical disabilities refer to numbers 1-10, with the number being lower the more severe the disability. Visual impairment ranges from 11-13, while 14 indicates intellectual disability.
The system is complicated and time consuming, and some athletes feel it is failing.
Curin would be in the pool at Tokyo’s Aquatic Center this year, as one of France’s top paraathletes, with nearly 150,000 Instagram followers.
He made his Paralympic debut in Rio at the age of 16 and just missed a podium spot.
But instead of chasing a medal in Japan, he makes a movie and prepares to swim across Lake Titicaca in South America.
“I decided to put the Paralympic swimming aside as long as these classification problems continue,” he told AFP.
“They’ve left me a little outraged by the Paralympic movement,” said the three-time World Cup medalist.
– ‘Incentive to cheat’ –
Curin isn’t the only one who thinks the system is flawed, with particularly heated discussions about classification in the pool.
American swimmer Jessica Long, who won her 14th Paralympic gold on Saturday, has said that “the incentive to cheat is enormous” given the increasing fame and financial rewards that successful para-athletes enjoy.
“I can’t watch this sport that I love is still being destroyed in this way,” she told Sports Illustrated last year.
The International Paralympic Committee defends the system, stating that “sports excellence determines which athlete or team ultimately wins”.
“Disappointingly, in recent years we have witnessed a small number of athletes… struggling to cope with the increased competition,” it said.
“Instead of embracing the enhanced competitive nature of their Para sport, they have instead questioned their competitors’ classification, despite international classifiers having determined that their rivals are in the right class.”
But critics of the system point to the arbitrary and unscientific nature of the assessments involved.
The exams are “done by eye and based on the perceptions of the observers,” French swimmer Claire Supiot told FranceInfo.
She was reclassified from S8 to S9 earlier this year, making “the road to the podium significantly harder”.
There are also allegations of athletes trying to abuse the system and try to be placed in a class with more severe limitations to gain an advantage.
In 2017, a former classifier told the Guardian newspaper on condition of anonymity about athletes taking hot or cold showers, rolling in the snow or bandaging their limbs to appear to have more limited skills during exams.
Curin underwent two rounds of exams, the first of which – a medical examination – yielded a preliminary rating at the lower end of S4.
But after a second lap where he was observed in the water, he got a final class of S5.
That, he said, unfairly punishes him, “because I know how to work well with my disability”.