I am currently sitting on a plane traveling from Hanover à the Netherlands for the weekend. I left today (Saturday) and will be back on campus on Monday afternoon just in time to start studying for my finals. I know this sounds irrational and you’re right, it is. but if I don’t go on this trip I can’t ski this season, because every Paralympic athlete needs to get something called a classification. Classifying is a way of basically ranking every disability to make varying degrees of these disabilities comparable. Classification is the reason I (someone who is legally blind but can see some things) can ski against someone who is totally blind and it can be deemed fair. Essentially I am flying to the Netherlands so that I can be reassured for the 10,000th time that yes, indeed, I am still blind and no my vision has not gotten better or worse in the last three years. However, unlike myself, many of my competitors do have degenerative vision lose. For them, classification is incredibly important because their vision gets worse over time, and therefore their classification can often change.
Visually impaired classification is broken down into three categories; B1, B2, and B3. B1 athletes are totally blind and compete wearing completely blacked out goggles. B2 skiers are slightly more sighted than B1 athletes, and B3 skiers are the most sighted of the visually impaired athletes. Each division has different factors, which basically refers to a percent of the actual time it takes the athlete to ski the race. B1 athletes who have the least amount of vision might, for example, have a factor of 0.55 for some races, meaning only 55% of that athlete’s raw time is considered. On the other hand, a B3 may have a factor of around 0.85 meaning 85% of that athlete’s time is considered. The difference in factors is what makes the times between the two athletes comparable and ideally competitive.
Visually impaired classification can get a bit controversial because, unlike some of the other disabilities, eye sight isn’t quite as straight forward. For instance, it’s pretty easy to look at an amputee and know whether he is missing his leg above or below the knee. It is a little more difficult to evaluate someone who is legally blind and determine just how much that person can actually see. Vision conditions are so diverse but in order for classification to work an arbitrary line must be drawn to categorize visual impairments. Consequently, it is impossible to make everyone happy even though the system is designed to help.
There are plenty of athletes, including myself that fall unfortunately close to that arbitrary cut off line between classes. There are a wide range of vision disorders in each category, and while being at the lower end of one may be portrayed as a disadvantage, I like to think of it as a challenge to be the best athlete I can be. Classification is something every Paralympic athlete knows well, and while it will never be perfect, it is necessary and a crucial part of Paralympic sport.