One of the fundamental objectives of the Paralympic Games is to create a level playing field while including athletes with varying types and degrees of disabilities or impairments.
The core element of this principle is classification. Athletes are identified by type and severity of their impairment and classified into an alphanumeric group, which is used to determine who is eligible to compete, and/or to apply score corrections to balance the field of play.
Each sport classifies its athletes slightly differently based on the nature of the sport. The classifications cover up to 10 possible types of impairments:
- Impaired muscle power
- Impaired passive range of movement
- Limb deficiency
- Leg length difference
- Intellectual impairment
- Involuntary movements
- Muscle tension
- Uncoordinated movements
- Short stature
- Vision impairment
Not every sport recognizes all 10 types of impairments as eligible for participation. For example, short stature is not an eligible impairment for sled hockey.
See below for how all six Winter Paralympic sports classify their athletes.
Para Alpine skiing
Para Alpine skiing is divided into three classes, each encompassing multiple classifications. The three classes are:
- Standing skiers
- Visual impairments
Each class has its own slate of men’s and women’s medal events (i.e. standing skiers do not compete for medals against sit-skiers).
Within each class, corrections are applied to each athlete’s result based on his/her classification to ensure that competition is balanced and races aren’t exclusively won by athletes with the least-severe impairments.
Athletes within the visual impairment class compete with the assistance of a guide who gives verbal instructions.
Para Nordic skiing (biathlon and cross-country skiing)
The two Para Nordic skiing sports use a similar three-class structure as para Alpine skiing (see above).
One important difference unique to biathlon involves visually impaired athletes during the shooting phase of competition. Instead of optics, the rifles are equipped with headphones connected to a laser-guided sound device. The device emits a high-pitched noise when the rifle is pointing directly toward the target, and a gradually lower-pitched noise the farther away from target the aim gets. The result is a “getting warmer/getting colder” effect that simulates visual marksmanship.
Para snowboarding also includes three classes, but unlike Alpine and Nordic skiing, visual impairment is not included as a class. Instead, para snowboarding has one class covering upper-limb impairments (UL) and two classes covering lower-limb impairments (LL1, LL2).
The two lower-limb impairment classes are separated based on severity. The LL1 class, among other things, includes athletes with above-the-knee amputations. By contrast, the LL2 class includes athletes with lower levels of impairment such as above-the-ankle amputations.
The men's program at the 2022 Paralympics features all three classifications, but only LL2 events will be contested for the women due to a lack of athletes in the other classifications. However LL1 athletes, such as Brenna Huckaby, will be allowed to race in LL2 events in a practice known as "competing up."
There is only one class in wheelchair curling, which is contested as a mixed team event at the Winter Paralympics.
Athletes must have an impairment affecting their legs. They must use a wheelchair at all times during competition, even if some do not necessarily use a wheelchair in daily life.
There is only one class in sled hockey. According to the Canadian Paralympic Committee: “To participate in IPC competitions and sanctioned events (i.e. Paralympic Winter Games), athletes must have an impairment of permanent nature in the lower part of the body of such a degree that it makes ordinary skating, and consequently ice hockey playing, impossible.”