Paralympic Athlete Definition Essay

I am delighted as editor of the RE: Reflections and Explorations series to welcome Dr. Lyusyena Kirakosyan back to its pages this week. Dr. Kirakosyan first proposed this series while a doctoral student at Virginia Tech and provided the leadership to ensure its successful launch. We are much indebted to her creative drive and vision. Her essay addresses a vital topic during these turbulent times for the world’s democracies; the question of empathetic imagination. Her lens to consider this critical concern is her recent experience at the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.


The importance of volunteers at sport mega events has increased during the last several decades as athletics have risen in social importance and generated ever higher levels of popular participation and expectation (Carnicelli-Filho, 2014; Green & Chalip, 2004; Moragas, Moreno & Paniagua, 2000). As Green and Chalip (2004) have pointed out, not only have volunteers become vital to the success of the events they serve, but also to the broader economic and social development to which those occasions are expected to contribute. The growth of the Olympic and Paralympic Games since the 1980s, and the broader media coverage that their increasing scope and size have spawned, has made volunteers essential to their success (Carnicelli-Filho, 2014; Green & Chalip, 2004; Kellett, 2008; Rönningen, 2000).

Indeed, many analysts consider the Olympic Games the apex of mega events due to their ability to provide excitement, prestige and numerous social benefits to athletes, audiences and volunteers alike (Kellett, 2008). A growing literature specifically examines the history and different dimensions and factors affecting Olympic volunteering (see Bladen, 2010; Carnicelli-Filho, 2014; Chalip, 2000; Green & Chalip, 2004; Kemp, 2002; Lynch, 2001; Moragas et al., 2000; Pound, 2000; Rönningen, 2000, among others), but there is little empirical research on these issues as they are evidenced in Paralympic volunteering (Kellett, 2008). Among the few who have treated the topic, Kellett (2008) has suggested that the experience of volunteering at the Paralympic Games differs from that of engagement with the Olympics. This brief essay outlines my understanding of the unique ways that the Paralympic context can elicit volunteer motivation and provide personal satisfaction.  I draw on my own experiences as a 2016 Paralympics volunteer in Rio de Janeiro and the reflections of several of my peers who share their insights in the video accompanying this essay.

The history of Olympic volunteering dates to the Games held in Stockholm, Sweden in 1912, at which only six volunteers assisted (Lynch, 2001). By 1956, however, when Melbourne, Australia served as host, about 500 volunteers supported the event (Ibid).  Some 70,000 volunteers worked behind the scenes at the Olympics in London in 2012, while the recent Rio event saw 50,000 individuals so serve. The Official Report of the Barcelona, Spain Olympic Games of 1992 was the first formal document to define explicitly the Olympic volunteer: “the volunteer is a person who makes an individual, altruistic commitment to collaborate, to the best of his/ her abilities in the organisation of the Olympic Games, carrying out the tasks assigned to him/her without receiving payment or rewards of any other nature” (cited in Moragas et al., 2000, p.134).

The available literature on volunteer motivation across different event contexts provides insight into building and maintaining commitment among those individuals. Scholars have identified both personal and social factors that motivate people to serve as Olympic volunteers. For example, Moragas et al. (2000) have outlined the following as key incentives for Olympic voluntarism:

  • The spirit of solidarity and peace enshrined in the Olympic philosophy;
  • Commitment as citizens, members of an association or nation;
  • Individual challenge;
  • Belonging to a group;
  • Identification as a member of that group;
  • Various forms of individual gratification (p.147).

Another study by Green and Chalip (2004) highlighted such motivating factors as a desire to help, opportunity to socialize with people sharing common interests, meeting new people and becoming friends with them, recognition of shared purpose and common identity, sense of excitement, celebrity atmosphere and learning, among others. Indeed, those who volunteered at the Rio 2016 Paralympics, whose reflections are compiled in the video shared here, uniformly described their volunteer experiences as extraordinary. As a group, their reasons for volunteering were quite similar to those discussed in the literature. My peers indicated that they were motivated to volunteer by a genuine desire to be helpful, the opportunity to meet new people, becoming friends with other volunteers, special possibilities to broaden their horizons, the chance to be a part of the excitement of a global sporting event, by the sense of community they gained from engaging with other volunteers, spectators and athletes, and by opportunities to gain and share knowledge.

These volunteers also articulated what made their Paralympic volunteering experience distinct, and the theme of mutuality echoed across their testimonies. Jordan (1986) has argued that mutuality depends on interaction, interest in and appreciation of the other, a capacity for empathy, emotional availability and responsiveness. She has argued that mutual empathy involves both an acknowledgment of sameness in the other and an appreciation of the difference of the other’s experience. Mutual empathy contains opportunity for shared growth and impact. The Paralympic volunteers came to understand that their experience involved more than simply making it possible for the athletes to perform their best, as challenging as that could be at times. Those with whom I spoke came to realize that assisting others had encouraged them to change and grow in often unforeseen ways. Paralympic athletes inspired and touched volunteers as they witnessed their triumphs and travails, and changed volunteers through their interactions with them, as those “helping” learned to value and encourage the athletes’ distinct capacities. In short, the Paralympic experience encouraged a deep empathy among the event’s volunteers. As Jordan (1986) has observed, as we reach out to understand the experience of the other, something new grows in us. This encouragement of empathetic imagination applied to the Paralympic volunteering experience, as volunteers became more aware of the limiting power of labels and came to value the unique identities of the remarkable people with disabilities competing in the Games’ various events.

In conclusion, at their best, both Olympic and Paralympic volunteers provide an example of solidarity and selfless work that not only assists the Games, but also provides manifold opportunities for each participating volunteer to grow personally as well.  Moragas et al. (2000) have argued that the importance of the Olympic volunteer movement lies in the following:

  • From the political point of view, it represents the uniting of individual energies into a common project, a new form of participation and the expression of a great public momentum;
  • From the economic point of view, the Olympic volunteers lead to a major reduction in salary costs and, if adequate training is provided, the result can also be a more-highly qualified population;
  • From the cultural point of view, volunteerism involves basic education in multi-culturalism and solidarity (p.151).

These positive characteristics are equally applicable to the Paralympic volunteer movement. But, drawing on my experience, I would add that from a moral perspective, Paralympic volunteerism goes to the heart of our mutual understanding of one another and contributes to our sense of a shared humanity.


Bladen, C.R. (2010). Media representation of volunteers at the Beijing Olympic Games. Sport in Society, 15(5), 784-796. doi:10.1080/17430431003651024.

Carnicelli-Filho, S. (2014). “Emotions and the Olympic Games: The emotional management of volunteers.” In K. A. Smith,  L. Lockstone-Binney, K. Holmes & T. Baum (Eds.), Event Volunteering: International Perspectives on the Event Volunteering Experience. London & New York: Routledge, pp. 140-153.

Chalip, L. (2000). “Sydney ‘2000: Volunteers and the Organisation of the Olympic Games: Economic and Formative Aspects.” In M. Moragas, A. B. Moreno & N. Puig (Eds.), Volunteers, Global Society and the Olympic Movement. Lausanne, Switzerland: International Olympic Committee, pp.205-214. Retrieved October 15, 2016 from

Green, B.C. & Chalip, L. (2004). “Paths to volunteer commitment: Lessons from the Sydney Olympic Games.” In R.A. Stebbins and M. Graham (Eds.), Volunteering as Leisure. Leisure as Volunteering. An International Assessment. Wallingford: CABI Publishing, pp. 49–67.

Jordan, J.V. (1986). The meaning of mutuality. Paper presented at a Stone Center Colloquium. Retrieved October 15, 2016 from

Kellett, P. (2008). “Volunteerism and the Paralympic Games.” In K. Gilbert & O.J. Schantz (Eds.), The Paralympic Games: Empowerment or Side Show. Maidenhead, UK: Meyer & Meyer, pp.176-183.

Kemp, S. (2002). The hidden workforce: Volunteers’ learning in the Olympics. Journal of European Industrial Training, 26(2/3/4), 109-116. doi:10.1108/03090590210421987.

Lynch, B. (2001). “Lessons from the Olympics.” In J. Noble & F. Johnston (Eds.), Volunteering Visions. Sydney, Australia: The Federation Press, pp.70-75.

Moragas, M., Moreno, A.B., & Paniagua, R. (2000). “The Evolution of Volunteers at the Olympic Games.” In M. Moragas, A. B. Moreno & N. Puig (Eds.), Volunteers, Global Society and the Olympic Movement. Lausanne, Switzerland: International Olympic Committee, pp.133-154.

Pound, R. W. (2000). “Volunteers and the Olympic Movement: Past, Present and Future.” In M. Moragas, A. B. Moreno & N. Puig (Eds.), Volunteers, Global Society and the Olympic Movement. Lausanne, Switzerland: International Olympic Committee, pp.223-230. Retrieved October 15, 2016 from

Rönningen, P. (2000). “Lillehammer ’94.” In M. Moragas, A. B. Moreno & N. Puig (Eds.), Volunteers, Global Society and the Olympic Movement. Lausanne, Switzerland: International Olympic Committee, pp. 183-187. Retrieved October 15, 2016 from


Lyusyena Kirakosyan currently serves as a Senior Project Associate at the Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance and a governance and development consultant for nongovernmental organizations. Her research interests include disability and human rights issues, community development and democratic citizenship. She recently volunteered for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games and is at work on a book on the Paralympics legacy. Since January 2016, she has been a research member of the Brazilian Paralympic Academy that focusses on inquiry into paralympic sports in Brazil. The Academy is formally a part of the Brazilian Paralympic Committee.

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Rio 2016 Paralympics: What do the athletes' classifications mean?

By Andrew McGarry

Updated September 06, 2016 13:12:31

If there is one major difference between the Olympics and the Paralympics it is the concept of classifications, and it can be quite confusing to the uninitiated.

At the Olympics, in most sports competitors are grouped by gender and/or weight class.

At the Paralympics, classifications are a way for organisers to group like with like athletes so people of roughly equivalent disabilities can compete together.

There are six main categories of disabilities represented at the Paralympics.

Amputee athletes

The minimum qualification for this category is that at least one major joint on one limb is missing, for example if an arm is amputated at the elbow, or a leg at the knee.

Some athletes, however, may be missing two or three full limbs. Some sports allow amputees to compete as wheelchair athletes.

Cerebral Palsy athletes

These competitors have problems with movement, balance, posture and general muscle control. This is caused by damage to different areas of the brain.

Vision impaired athletes

A third category relates to vision impairment or blindness. Athletes will have a wide range of impairment, which can be as manageable as requiring contact lenses or glasses, or as severe as full blindness.

Wheelchair athletes

There may be some overlap between this category and others. For example, there may be athletes with cerebral palsy who may require a wheelchair.

Some amputees may need, or may be allowed to use, a wheelchair.

The most well-known disabilities requiring wheelchairs are, of course, paraplegia and quadriplegia. Paraplegia means the legs are partially or totally affected but there is use of the arms and hands.

Quadriplegia means paralysis affecting all four limbs. Usually athletes must have at least a 10 per cent loss of lower limb function to qualify for wheelchair status.

Les Autres ("the others")

Les Autres is a French term meaning "the others".

In Paralympic terms, this means other disabilities not covered by the previous categories. In particular Les Autres applies to disabilities involving disorders such as people with short stature.

Intellectual impairment

This refers to a limitation in intellectual functioning and adaptive behaviour as expressed in conceptual, social and practical adaptive skills, which originates before the age of 18.

Intellectual disability sport classifications were removed from the Paralympics after the Sydney Games in 2000. This followed the scandal of the Spanish basketball team, which was stripped of the gold medal after it was revealed that 10 members of the team had only posed as having an intellectual impairment.

The classification was only returned to the Paralympics in London in 2012.

The classifications

Simply applying these five basic categories is not enough to ensure fairness in competition, however.

Numerical classifications are then used to cater for differing levels of impairment — or to put it another way, to cater for differing levels of functional ability.

The ability to hold a bow steady in archery, to hold and swing a racquet in tennis, to manoeuvre a wheelchair, move around a court on foot, see the course in sailing, or a myriad other important skills all have to be measured and athletes graded.

Visually Impaired Sports

There is a basic three-category classification system for the various sports that are open to visually impaired competitors, such as football (five-a-side), goalball and judo.

In other sports like athletics and swimming which include sections for visually impaired athletes, the classifications will be numbered 11-13, where 11 is for the most seriously impaired athletes and 13 for the least seriously impaired.

Visually impaired swimmers are usually assisted by "tappers", who warn swimmers by tapping them on the shoulder with a pole to alert them about the approaching wall and the need to turn or make the touch.

The basic categories are: B1: Athletes must have no ability to perceive light in either eye, or some ability to perceive light, but an inability to recognise the shape of a hand at any distance or in any direction.

B2: Athletes in this classification are able to recognise the shape of a hand to a standard of vision of 2/60 and/or have a field of vision of less than five degrees.

B3: Athletes in this classification have a standard of vision between 2/60 and 6/60 and/or a field of vision greater than 5 degrees and less than 20 degrees.


Competitors in archery are divided into two classes, W1 and Open.

W1: These athletes are wheelchair users with impairment in all four limbs and a clear loss of muscle strength, coordination or range of movement.

Open: This class is for wheelchair users with arms showing normal function but serious impairment in trunk and legs. Some athletes may choose to stand for the event, requiring support for balance.


Competitors in track and field events are divided into several groups of classifications.

The first letter gives you T for a track event and F for a field event.

A two-digit number is used — the first digit tells you the category of impairment and the second digit tells you the degree of impairment.

Looking at the second number, the lower the number, the greater the degree of impairment.

T11-13: Athletes in these classifications have varying levels of visual impairment.

T20: Athletes have an intellectual impairment

T/F 31-38: Athletes with cerebral palsy

T32-34: These athletes compete in wheelchair racing events.

F31-34: These athletes compete in a seated position, in a throwing chair.

T35-38: These athletes compete in running events.

F35-38: These athletes compete in standing events.

T40-41: Athletes with Les Autres, including short stature.

T42-44: Athletes with impairment in one or both legs, often requiring a prosthetic. Also includes athletes with impaired muscle power, impaired range of movement or leg length differences.

T45-47: Athletes with impairment in one or both arms.

T51-54: Wheelchair athletes. T51-52 have impairment in upper and lower limbs, T53 have fully functioning arms but no trunk function and T54 have partial trunk and leg functions.

F51-58: Wheelchair field athletes. F51-53 have limited function in shoulders, arms and hands and no trunk or leg function. F54 have normal arm and hands function. F55-58 have increasing levels of trunk and leg function.


BC1: This category is for both throwers and foot players (those who kick the balls to the jack). Athletes can have help from an assistant, who can hold the player's wheelchair steady or adjust it, and can give the ball to the player for the next attempt, if the player asks for it.

BC2: This category is for throwing players only. No assistance can be given to players in this section of the competition.

BC3: This category is for players with a very advanced physical impairment. Players use a device to assist them and also can be helped by a nominated person at the court.

However the assistant must keep his/her back to the court, so they cannot give advice on where to throw or kick the next ball to get it closest to the jack.

BC4: This category applies to people with other serious impairments not covered by the three other categories. Players are not allowed assistance.


The new Paralympic sport of canoeing involves competitors with physical impairments, grouped into three sport classes.

KL1: Athletes in this category have no trunk function or very limited trunk function, and no leg function.

KL2: Athletes in this category have partial leg and trunk function. They can sit upright in the kayak, and will have limited leg movement while paddling in the race.

KL3: Athletes with trunk function and partial leg function. Athletes in this category have conditions including muscular dystrophy, spina bifida and tetraplegia.


B1-2: Visually impaired cyclists compete in events sitting behind sighted guides on tandem bicycles.

C1-5: Cyclists with a physical impairment such as cerebral palsy or an arm or leg amputation.

C1, C2, C3, C4 and C5 are determined based on functional ability, with separate events for men and women.

C1 athletes have the most serious impairment, while those in C5 have the lowest level of impairment.

T1-2: Races for athletes on tricycles. They are unable to ride a bicycle due to a condition affecting balance and co-ordination.

Athletes in T1 have a more serious impairment than those in the T2 category.

Cerebral Palsy (CP): These cyclists compete in four functional divisions. The athlete is only allowed to start in one division, and changing of divisions is not allowed.

H1-5: Handcycling - competitors race on bikes with two big wheels at either end. They sit in the middle and use a hand pump rather than medals to propel themselves forward.

These competitors usually require a wheelchair for mobility or are unable to use normal bikes or tricycles because of severe lower limb impairment.

Cyclists in H1-4 compete in a reclining position. H1 athletes have no trunk or leg function and limited arm function. H3 athletes have no leg function but good trunk and arm function.

H5 athletes sit on their knees and use their arms and trunk.


Grade Ia: These riders are mainly wheelchair users. They have poor trunk balance and/or impaired function in all four limbs.

Grade Ib: Some of these riders are wheelchair users. They have either reduced trunk control and minimal upper limb limitations or moderate upper and lower limb and trunk conditions.

Grade II: Some of these riders are wheelchair users. They have severe movement impairment involving the lower half and good trunk balance, or moderate impairments of all four limbs with reduced trunk control.

Grade III: Riders in this section are mainly able to walk without support. They have impairments in both arms or have no arms, or alternatively have moderate impairments of all four limbs. Grade III also includes blind riders and those with short stature.

Grade IV: These riders have some degree of visual impairment or reduced motion or reduced muscle strength or reduced leg function.


Fencing at the Paralympics is open to amputee, cerebral palsy and wheelchair athletes.

To level the playing field all must compete in a wheelchair, which must be fastened to the floor at an angle of 110 degrees, which puts both competitors' fencing arms level with each other.

The fastening to the floor means they cannot backpedal away from a lunge or attack from their opponent.

Football: Five-a-side (for visually impaired athletes)

The five-a-side version of the sport was introduced at the Athens Games of 2004.

There are no offside rules.

All four outfield players must wear eyeshades.

The goalkeeper is sighted but cannot leave the area. There are three sighted guides, to direct players toward the ball when it arrives in their third of the field.

The guides are the goalkeeper in defence, the coach in midfield and another guide in attack.

The football contains ball bearings to allow competitors to hear its approach.

Football: Seven-a-side (for cerebral palsy athletes)

All classifications involve ambulant athletes.

C5: Athletes in this classification have difficulty when walking or running, but not in standing or kicking the ball. Athletes will lose balance after a small shift in their central equilibrium.

C6: These athletes have moderate to severe levels of athetosis (involuntary movements), ataxia (unsteadiness) or a combination of athetosis and spasticity (muscle spasms) for all four limbs. Athletes in this classification usually have problems controlling or co-ordinating their arms, particularly when running.

C7: Athletes in this class are hemiplegic - they have paralysis down one half of their body, including face, arms and legs. These athletes usually walk with a limp and have an arm or hand flexed on the affected side of the body. The other side usually functions well.

C8: This class consists of athletes with mild hemiplegia, diplegia (both arms or both legs) or athetosis or monoplegia (paralysis in one limb). Athletes must have an obvious impairment that affects playing football.

Teams must include at least one athlete from classes 5 or 6. Teams are not allowed to have more than two C8 players on the field.


Goalball is played by visually impaired athletes - there is no formal classification, since all participants wear black-out masks to ensure fairness.

Similar to five-a-side football, the ball has bells in it to orient players. There is total silence in the arena while the ball is in play.


Visually impaired athletes compete in judo.

Players are split into weight categories rather than classifications. Athletes begin each bout holding on to each other, or gripped up.


Competition is open to all athletes with cerebral palsy, spinal injuries and amputees (lower limb amputees only).

Powerlifting is divided into 10 different weight divisions. The athlete who lifts the greatest weight is the winner in each division.


There are three classifications corresponding to the three Paralympic boat classes:

LTA (Legs, Trunk, Arms): These rowers include all competitors who have a minimum level of impairment (can include the visually impaired). They are able to use their legs, trunk and arms to complete strokes. They are able to use a sliding seat in their boats.

TA (Trunk and Arms): Competitors in this classification can fix their pelvis on the seat in the boat but are unable to use a sliding seat because of their loss of leg function.

A (Arms Only): These rowers have no leg or trunk function, and are only able to row with the use of their arms.


Sailing has athletes from amputee, cerebral palsy, visually impaired, wheelchair and Les Autres groups competing against each other.

Classification is done on a points basis.

There are three sailing classes - the Sonar (mixed three-person crew), Skud-18 (two-person crew) and 2.4mR (single person) events.

Competitors are ranked between one and seven points depending on their functional ability. A one-point rating is given to the lowest level of function, while a seven-point rating is given to those with the highest level of function.

In a three-person boat the total number of ratings points can be no higher than 14.

In a two-person boat, one competitor has a more severe level of impairment, while the other must have a minimum level of impairment.


Competitors are divided into classes depending on their degree of trunk functionality, balance while seating, muscle strength and mobility of upper and lower limbs.

SH1: This classification is for Pistol and Rifle competitors that do not require a shooting stand.

SH2: This classification is for competitors who are unable to support the weight of the firearm with their arms. These competitors require a shooting stand.


Swimmers are categorised into 13 different groups depending on their functional ability to perform a particular stroke.

Again, the lower the number, the greater the impairment's impact on functional ability.

S1-10: These categories are for competitors with physical disabilities.

The classes rank highest to lowest in terms of level of disability, so S1 is for the most seriously impaired swimmers, while S10 is for those with the mildest form of impairment.

S11-13: These categories are for swimmers with visual impairments - S11 swimmers must use blackout goggles in all events to ensure fair competition.

S14: This category is for swimmers with an intellectual impairment.

Prefix S is for freestyle, backstroke and butterfly events.

SB shows the class for breaststroke, while SM is for individual medley events.

Within classes, swimmers may start with a dive or from the water. Some swimmers will have different classifications in different strokes, depending on the necessary movement involved.

Table Tennis

Table tennis has 11 different classifications, relating to physical or intellectual impairments.

1-5: These classifications are for athletes in wheelchairs, with class 1 for the most severely impaired and class 5 for the lowest level of impairment.

6-10: These classifications are for those who compete while standing. Again, class 6 is for the most severely impaired and class 10 for the lowest level of impairment.

11: This class is for athletes with an intellectual impairment.


This new event on the Paralympic program consists of a 750m swim, a 20km cycle and a 5km run.

There are five classes for both men and women.

PT1: A category for wheelchair users. These athletes cycle using a hand-cycle and do the 5km run in a racing wheelchair.

PT2-4: These categories are for ambulant (walking) athletes. They have a range of impairments including loss of muscle strength, loss of range of movement and loss of limbs.

These athletes can cycle using approved modifications. Depending on their impairment they can run with or without prosthetics.

PT5: A class for visually impaired athletes - they have the option to ride on a tandem bike and run with a guide.

Volleyball (sitting)

Volleyball at the Paralympics is open to athletes with physical impairments including amputees.

There are two classifications for athletes, MD (Minimally Disabled) and D (Disabled).

The game is played with six players on court at a time. There can only be one MD athlete on court at any time per team - the rest must be D classification.

Wheelchair Basketball

Wheelchair basketball is open to athletes with a range of impairments, including paraplegia, lower limb amputation, cerebral palsy and polio.

Players are ranked on their functional ability, from 1.0 for the lowest level of mobility, to 4.5 for the highest. Teams of five players must have no more than 14 points on the court at any one time.

Wheelchair Rugby

As with wheelchair basketball, players are ranked on their functional ability, from 0.5 for the lowest level of mobility to 3.5 for the highest. Teams of four players must have no more than eight points on the court at any one time.

Wheelchair Tennis

Athletes must have a permanent substantial or total loss of function in one or both legs. There are two categories, open and quad.

In the quad division, the eligibility criteria requires players to have a disability in three or more limbs.

The open class is for athletes with other physical impairments who use a wheelchair (but do not necessarily use a wheelchair in daily life).

Aside from the specially designed wheelchairs, the other main assistance for players (for quad athletes) is the option to have a special strap wound around their hand to help them hold the racquet.

Athletes are allowed two bounces of the ball, with the first bounce being inside the boundaries of the court.

Topics:sport, paralympics, brazil

First posted September 06, 2016 09:32:57


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