Para swimming is one of the most popular sports for people with disabilities and has been present in the Paralympic games since the inaugural games in Rome, 1960. Classification is an essential feature of Paralympic sport; its purpose is to minimise the impact of impairment on the competition outcome and ensure the athlete who wins is the one with the most optimal physiological, biomechanical and psychological attributes, rather than the one who is least impaired. The greatest threat to the integrity of Paralympic sport is an unfair classification system where athletes are assigned to the wrong group thus giving them an unfair advantage or disadvantage over their competitors.
Para swimmers with an eligible physical impairment are currently assigned to one of ten classes using a functional classification system introduced at the 1992 Barcelona Games. In the Para swimming community there is criticism about the lack of scientific rigour behind elements of the existing classification system . World Para Swimming (WPS), the sport's governing body, have recognised that the current system is not fit for purpose, that it gives some Para swimmers an unfair advantage and is vulnerable to intentional misrepresention (cheating). WPS commissioned our team to provide the evidence-base for a new, more objective and scientifically rigorous classification system for physically impaired swimmers.
To date we have collected data on over 200 high-level Para swimmers and contributed substantially to the body of knowledge on evidence-based classification though outputs in high-quality peer-reviewed journals [see Bibliography]. Our research has focused on: 1) developing valid measures of impairment (limb deficiency, strength, range of motion, coordination) and 2) establishing the relationship between impairment measures and determinants of swimming performance (swimming speed, drag, propulsion). The next phase of this project will focus on refining our motor coordination and strength assessment protocols by exploring the mechanisms behind poor movement control, fatigue effects and, potentially, developing a tool to identify those athletes who misrepresent their abilities during classification to gain an unfair advantage.
Professor Carl Payton is a core member of the Musculoskeletal Science & Sports Medicine Research Centre at Manchester Metropolitan University. A former British Students swimming champion and coach, Carl’s research for the past 30 years has focussed on the biomechanical determinants of elite swimming performance. He has provided biomechanics support to numerous Olympic and Paralympic medallists, most recently at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics. As biomechanics lead for the GB Para Swimming team he has developed a number of innovative diagnostic tools for assessing swimmers, including the speed-reel, the tow-rig and semi-tethered ergometer. Carl is a Co-Principal Investigator on the World Para Swimming Classification Research Project for swimmers with physical impairment.