Impairment classification: ′Of course fiddling goes on′ | Sports| German football and major international sports news | DW | 14.09.2016
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Impairment classification: 'Of course fiddling goes on'

German swimmer Torben Schmidtke is hoping to win the gold medal in the 100-meter breaststroke. However, he, like many others regards the current impairment classification system as unfair.

Torben Schmidtke placed his prosthesis on the starting block, just as he always does before jumping into the water. Schmidtke has Dysmelia, which leads to congenital malformation at birth. His legs are shorter than normal and on his left hand he has only three fingers.

Schmidtke competes in the breaststroke in the SB6 class against other swimmers that doctors and physiotherapists have determined to have a similar level of impairment.

"There is no question that fiddling goes on," the 27-year-old said. He goes on to explain that some athletes go easy in the classification tests in order to conceal what they are actually capable of.

Impairment classification can make or break careers

This is one route to a world or European title - or a Paralympic gold medal. Getting placed in a more favorable class can give an athlete a major advantage. Conversely, the system can destroy careers.

The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) is well aware of the widespread criticism of its classification system. The IPC's medical director, Peter van de Vliet, has said that there is no evidence of cheating. At the same time he is also quick to concede that test results are not only dependent on performance of the athlete on the day, but also on those conducting the testing.

"It is very complex and difficult to analyze."

This makes it sound like the current system amounts to a virtual invitation to cheat.

New system in the works

Now, the IPC has announced plans to change the system of impairment classification for a total of 20 sports. Among them are athletics, biathlon and sledge hockey.

"Technology and science have now made this possible," Vielt said. "We owe it to our athletes to check the system."

The IPC has enlisted the help of two universities, one in Australia and the other in England, to look at the system used for swimming.

They conduct tests of the athlete's performances in the water using the latest technology in laboratory conditions. The athletes are wired up and pulled through the pool in order to measure the resistance on their body. Cheating is almost impossible.

Similar measurements are taken when the swimmer jumps from the starting block, during the actual swim, and at the turn. The results of all of these tests and measurements are combined to arrive at a total score. The level of impairment is determined by combining this with the results of the medical examinations.

Logistical challenge

The new system of scientific testing should be fully developed in about two years, when the IPC is hoping to implement it worldwide. This promises to amount to a huge logistical undertaking.

First of all, the Committee will have to ensure that all national associations are equipped with the new instruments of measurement. International testers will also have to receive sufficient training in the new system. The aim is for all of the people whose decisions ultimately determine an athlete's classification of impairment to have the same training and minimum standard of competence.

Tokyo a big ask

However, it doesn't look like the new system will be ready in time for the Tokyo Games. The new Paralympic cycle starts next year and the athletes need to know by then in which class they will be competing, so that they can adjust their training accordingly.

Torben Schmidtke doesn't known whether he will still be competing in four years' time. All that counts for him at the moment is Rio, even if he does not believe that the current system is fair. After winning silver in London in his best event, the 100-meter breaststroke, he is aiming to win gold in Brazil.

In the spring, Schmidtke posted the best time of anybody in the world in the event this year - against the Ukrainian world-record holder, Yevheniy Bohodayko.

"He is huge," said Schmidtke, who is almost a head shorter than Bohadayko. Although Bohodayko has a shortened right arm, he has two healthy legs, which give him a big advantage over Schmidtke when jumping out of the starting blocks. Schmidtke has to make up for that during the actual swim. But he has proved that he has what it takes to do so.

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