Between 14-23 July, the West Ham United football stadium (previously the home to the 2012 Paralympic Games) will once again be home to para athletes from across the world. 1300 athletes are expected, representing 100 countries, at the 8th World Para Athletics Championships.
Para athletics, including both track and field events, are contested across 10 different types of impairment. Eight of these are physical, one is visual and the last is intellectual impairment. In athletics, the intellectual impairment category is denoted by the titles T20 (track) and F20 (field), so these are the ones to keep an eye out for.
Athletes competing in the T20/F20 classes have an intellectual impairment that would impact their chosen sport. Criteria is based upon the World Health Organisation’s definition of intellectual disability. An individual must have an IQ below 75, an impairment in adaptive function (for example social, domestic or communication skills) and the disability must have occurred before the age of 18.
So what impact does this have on athletics?
Across all para sport classifications, the system is designed to ensure that all those in the same class have impairments that will have a similar impact on performance. This is to ensure that the competition is based upon skill, rather than the limitations or potential of an individual’s disability. All impairments must be considered severe enough to impact an individual’s athletics performance.
For those in the T20/F20 classes, each sport can have its own difficulties. In long-distance running, pacing can be difficult. In the jumping events, athletes can struggle with remembering take-off points. Like all those with intellectual disabilities, T20/F20 athletes are not all the same. However, the classification aims to ensure that athletes have similar competitive advantages.
Classification isn’t always simple
For the T20/F20 categories, classification can be very challenging. Learning disabilities can be invisible, making it very difficult to determine who actually meets the criteria. The classes were first introduced to the Paralympic Games in 1996, but after the 2000 games in Sydney they were not included again until 2012. In Sydney, a whistle-blower on the team revealed that 10 out of the 12 members of the Spanish basketball team had no disability, having disguised themselves to ensure they were not recognised. This led to the classification being removed until there was a more accurate and comprehensive way to prove eligibility.
Luckily, in 2009 a new system for verifying intellectual disabilities was approved, and from 2012, the category was reintroduced into the Paralympic Games. However, because of the previous issues, the verification process is extremely rigorous. According to the BBC:
“A psychologist's assessment verifying that the competitor meets the WHO criteria is submitted to a National Eligibility officer, then checked by two or three independent psychologists from an eligibility committee assembled by Inas, the international federation for para-athletes with an intellectual disability.
“But that is just the beginning. Once an athlete is acknowledged to be intellectually disabled, he or she undergoes a sports-specific classification, a process overseen by the international sports federation for the sport in question.”
How difficult is proving a disability?
Due to the 2000 cheating scandal, athletes with intellectual disabilities have to now work harder than before to prove their disabilities and to demonstrate that these impact their sport. According to the British Athletics Selection Policy for the 2017 World Para Athletics, it is the ‘responsibility of the athlete to obtain and provide documentary evidence of a Relevant Diagnosis so as to show to the CMO's satisfaction that the impairment causes permanent and verifiable physical, visual or intellectual activity limitation consistent with the athlete's classification’.
The selection process then includes rigorous tests to ensure that an individual’s intellectual disabilities affect their abilities to both perform everyday tasks and sport-specific abilities. Athletes are tested on their overall ‘sports intelligence’ as well as skills related to their specific sport. The former covers reaction times, perception of space, concentration and more, whilst the latter checks for impediments in their ability to compete in a certain sport, such as pacing for running or taking off in the long jump.
Once an athlete has demonstrated that they cannot complete these tasks to the level other athletes can, they can be considered for entry into para athletics to represent their country.
The London 2017 World Para Athletics
In London, 49 para athletes will be representing Team GB. Three of these will be competing in the T20 classification and one in the F20. Martina Barber, a new addition to Team GB, will be competing in the T20 long jump and Sabrina Fortune, who won bronze in Rio in 2016, will be hoping to win another medal in the F20 shot put. James Hamilton and Stephen Morris are both long distance runners. Keep an eye out for both of them in the 800m and 1500m and Stephen will also be running the 5000m.