Extreme Sorting: the Paralympics

As discussed in the last post, there are some difficult problems associated with deciding what players are entitled to participate in what events. Perhaps it will comfort organizers who are wrestling with such problems to consider a context in which the sorting problem is exceptionally complex and difficult: the Paralympic Games.

In the most recent Paralympic Games that followed the Olympic Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, there were 528 competitions, and there were 72 events in the Winter Paralympic games at Sochi, for an even 600. This is far more than the number of competitions in the regular Olympics: 306 in Rio, and 99 in Sochi. The number of different events in the Paralympics is considerable smaller, but there are more competitions because most events have more than one classification. In Rio, for example, there were 16 different versions of the men’s 100 meter race, with each classification admitting entrants meeting a particular set of guidelines for physical or mental impairment.

There are uniform guidelines for what constitutes a visual impairment, but the classification of all other impairments is different for each sport. Some impairments don’t count at all – there are no classifications in the Paralympics that one can qualify for on the basis of a hearing impairment. But for others, the classification system attempt to group together impaired athletes into categories, usually not according to the particular diagnosis, but according to expert judgment about the degree to which each athlete is hampered in performing that particular sport.

This would seem to call for both an extraordinary level of expertise on the part of the classifiers, and a high level of honesty and good faith among the athletes. For the most part, it appears that the Paralympics have both of these things.

But it’s only to be expected that there are abuses to be found. As the material rewards for Paralympic success (in terms of national support and sponsorship opportunities) have grown, so has the opportunity to game the system by athletes exaggerating their impairments . Here is an episode of BBC Radio’s “File on 4” podcast that discusses the matter, including an extended discussion of a particular athlete whose classifications seem doubtful.

It is undoubtedly a good thing that many people with various physical and mental impairments get the opportunity to enjoy competing at sports. And it also seems a good thing that such competitions can become real competitions, going beyond the “everyone’s a winner” mentality that celebrates mere participation.

But as the rewards for Paralympic success grow large enough to attract the attention of the unscrupulous, the organizers of the Paralympics may well discover that the classification problem inherent in the very idea of the Paralympics is unsolvable.





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