Somewhere, in the passing of time between when I am writing this and its publication, the Olympics have come and gone. I’m not sure entirely sure what’s happened. I’m assuming two or three people have died. Hopefully Yuki Ota has won the men’s foil. Australia will be middle of the table and America is being smug. Most importantly though, we are days away from one of the greatest and most underappreciated sporting events in the world: the Paralympics.
The Paralympics is one of those things that everyone loves the idea of but no one actually watches. I’m not saying that everyone who doesn’t watch the Paralympics is evil, because it’s not like anyone’s avoiding them. Most people just haven’t been exposed to the glory of the Paralympic Games. It’s not an Olympic afterthought. It’s an awe-inspiring display of what humanity is capable of.
But with that lack of exposure comes misinformation, confusion, your uncle yelling that it isn’t fair because that one guy has all his limbs. Yet there’s never been a better time to change that. Channel 7 has vowed to give an immense Paralympic broadcast, with 14 hours a day, multi-channel coverage.
Watching the Paralympics can be a confusing experience and the topic of disability can be awkward, so it can sometimes feel hard to ask questions about it. So hopefully, I’ve pre-empted a few of them for you before you leave angry YouTube comments about the unfairness of someone competing who deserves to be there. What started as a form of sports rehabilitation for wheelchair users has transformed into an elite international competition with one guiding principle: it’s for all impairments, from the minor to the major.
Isn’t It Easy To Get Into The Paralympics?
It varies from event to event. It’s going to be easier to get into Boccia than it is Athletics. You hear really compelling stories about people suffering accidents and attending the Paralympics two years later but there are a lot of factors in play. Prior to becoming disabled, you might have been an avid tennis player. After becoming a wheelchair user, you’re able to continue by playing Wheelchair Tennis, where your racquet skills are already up there and all you need to learn is the wheelchair movement. Some para-athletes have been training from childhood.
Para-sport isn’t easy. It’s not as though there are only 12 Wheelchair Basketball players in the country and those people also make up our national team. The National Wheelchair Basketball League currently has a six-team fixture (which doesn’t even take into account local state leagues or individual recreation centres running the sport for rehab). It’s important to remember that the people you’re watching are Elite Athletes, just like our Olympians. They go to the Australian Institute of Sport. They compete in nationals and earn selection points. They train and train and train.
They also aren’t necessarily good people. The entire Russian 2016 Paralympic team has been banned due to systematic doping. Spain once fielded a team for intellectual disabled basketball where not a single member was actually intellectually disabled. For the life of me, I will never be able to forget Oscar Pistorius.
Being impaired isn’t a “Get Into The Paralympics Free” card.
Classification, or, Please Send Help I Can’t Keep Up, Why So Many Events?
Easily the most confusing part of the Paralympics is the sheer amount of different events there are for the individual sports. This can be alienating when you have another men’s 100m freestyle that at first glance seems identical to the one you just witnessed. This all comes down to one reason: Classification.
Classification is the way that the Paralympics achieves representation for all impairments while maintaining competitive fairness. In each sport discipline, the governing bodies create multiple events based on the severity and impact an impairment has. Then, due to the fact that it would be an organisational nightmare to give each individual impairment have its own event, discretion and careful thought is used to determine which impairments are equivalent in their effects to create fair competition. This is why a single event can have so many different impairments represented without it being unfair.
The best way to look at classification in the hopes (but not certainty, classification is a huge grey area that most people still have difficulty with) to understand it, is to take a look at Paralympic Athletics. Athletics is a prime example as it offers events for all of the major categories of impairment: Intellectual, Physical and Visual. Each sub-event within these disciplines has a relevant classification code that corresponds to the event that the athlete competes in. Visual impairment races are represented under the code T/F 11-13, corresponding to the level of sight loss from total (T/F 11) to 6/60 (T/F 13). Physical impairment is covered from T/F 31 to 57, covering limb loss, mobility inhibition, wheelchair use, limb deficiency and so many more. This same process is undertaken in every single sport. Not always to the same degree of detail (some sports only have four total classifications) but that’s the guiding principle. It’s important to remember that everyone has some form of impairment. It may be invisible, it may be more minor and it may not necessarily drastically impede on day-to-day life. But all impairments impede on sporting ability in some way or another. This is just a way of making the playing ground more even. And just because they can run faster than you doesn’t mean they aren’t latently disadvantaged against you. Never forget this.
I Just Saw That Person In A Wheelchair Stand Up And I Feel Angry About It
It’s an understandable reaction. You’re watching Wheelchair Fencing, or Basketball, or Tennis and after a win, the athlete screams and gets out of their chair, as though God saw their win and decided to perform an on-the-spot miracle. While the Australian Government loves our gold medals, they aren’t quite up to offering life-changing surgery as incentive.
Being a wheelchair user is not always a prerequisite for participating in wheelchair sports. This sounds like complete nonsense but there’s good reason for it. In some wheelchair sports, the wheelchair acts as an equaliser.
Say I have a foot amputation. In day-to-day life, a prosthetic is ample enough for me. But when I want to play tennis competitively, I’m inherently disadvantaged. In a wheelchair, against another person in a wheelchair, my lower-body impairment is no longer in play, leaving us on an equal playing field.
Of course there are still classifications in sports where this occurs. In Wheelchair Fencing, if you’ve got an impaired lower body but perfect upper body, you will not be put into a class with someone who has an impaired upper body.
Whether or not this occurs is entirely at the discretion of the international governing body of the sport itself. Wheelchair Basketball operates on a points-system, where various impairments are graded by severity from classifications 1.0 to 4.5 and the five players on court cannot exceed a total of 14 points. However, in Wheelchair Rugby, competitors must be a wheelchair user in day-to-day life. If you’re watching something and are unsure, have a quick check of the classification rules. Always remember: if they’re competing in the Paralympics, they’ve been confirmed to be there. You can’t just sit in a wheelchair and rock up on the day.
What Are the Best Sports?
All of them. It’s hard for me to pick out a few choice events and say “these are all you need to see” because I genuinely feel as though there’s fun to be had in any Paralympic event. For the most part, picking a sport because it’s the only thing on and you can’t be bothered moving from the couch (i.e. The Olympic Way) and just seeing where it takes you can expose you to things you had never thought you’d be seeing, let alone enjoying. I’ve chosen a few of my favourites to get the chair rolling.
Death on wheels. Thought rugby was tough? Wait till you see some guy get rammed and flipped in what is apparently a totally legal move, to which you’ll probably mutter something like “is that even safe?” before ceasing to care. This Mad Max outtake’s original name was, honest to God, Murderball. Teams are comprised of 12 athletes, four on the court at any time and in order to score a try a player must be holding the ball and have both wheels pass fully over the end line. What follows is a, fluid, free-flowing and unrepentantly aggressive spectacle. Australia is very good at it. Your mum may stand behind you and tut under her breath about someone getting hurt but it’s so worth it.
One of the few Paralympic-only sports available, Goalball is a sport designed to be played by the visually impaired. On court, each team has three players guard one goal, which is the length of about one-and-a-half soccer goals. However, everyone is totally blind. So, the ball is hollowed and filled with chimes. Each team takes turns attacking, while the defending team must protect their goals by keeping track of the ball using only auditory stimulus.
Even without my little (read: a lot) fencing nerd bias, Wheelchair Fencing is an absolute joy to watch. Explosive, aggressive, technical, beautiful. Before you get it into your head that this is jousting, the wheelchairs do not move. Opponents are locked into a metal frame, keeping each other within “lunging” (or, the upper body equivalent of) distance with each other. By being so close, what we see is a form of sword fighting a lot closer to the movies and less likely to piss off medieval re-enactors on the internet. Constant parries and clashing of steel. Don’t let the scoring system let this pass you by.