The difference between the Olympics and Paralympics is one single element: classification. Classification differs from sport to sport. This is because an eligible impairment may have a relatively low influence on performing in one sport but could be significant in another. There is a classifying system for all Paralympic sports that complies with international standards.

Classification helps to ensure that para sports remain fair. Judo is exclusively for athletes with a vision impairment and the first stage is to go through a series of tests to ensure that a judoka has an eligible impairment. This means that their disability affects their ability to compete in judo competition according to some minimum requirements. Classifications mostly take place prior to an event and this was the case in Germany over the past few days, ahead of the first IBSA grand prix of the year.

Mr Morteza Najafi

We caught up with a few members of the classification team to gain an insider’s view of the proceedings. First up, Chief Classifier of the International Blind Sport Association (IBSA), Mr Ludwig Krabbe, who is an ophthalmologist and sport doctor from northwest Germany. In fact, he is a judoka himself.

“We have done a lot of classification, especially in judo, as it is very complex and therefore we need to be strict. One point I would like to highlight is that I am very happy that the refractive error diagnosis is no longer accepted in the classification. We have fought for that for more than 20 years and you can read it in every text book that people with a refractive error diagnosis can see much better than impaired people. To join our expert team, people must have ophthalmology qualifications and also experience with low vision.”

Iranian VI classifier, Mr Morteza Najafi has been involved with the system for over 20 years. He studied medicine and ophthalmology and is also experienced with athletes with low vision. “I am very happy that they have separated the former B1 category to now be J1 and from the former B2 and B3 groups to now being J2. I said for many years that it is not fair that one J1 athletes compete against J2 athletes because the latter has advantages over the blind athletes. I am pleased that IBSA Judo separated them. It certainly improved the quality of the events.”

Jeanne Derber

Mr Najafi further emphasised, “The main background of the classification is making the sport fairer because for blind or low vision athletes in judo and any other sport, it is not fair for them to have to compete against someone with more advanced vision.

Judo is an interesting sport and worldwide there are many judoka. I also suggested that we develop the sport in Africa and particularly the sub-Saharan region. Sport is for all. We need to support more countries. We have a long way to go but surely, we are on the right track.”

USA’s Jeanne Derber has also been on the scene for quite sometime. She is an ophthalmologist based in Colorado Springs. She took on the US Olympic team initially back in the late 80s before getting involved in the US Association of blind athletes. Being part of the requirement, she also has a background in the field of low vision from her university studies. Moreover, Ms Derber is also a classifier of the International Paralympic Committee. “Honestly,” she laughs, “other than being a spectator I don’t have any background in judo but with judo classification they actually changed the rules a couple of years ago, so we are updating all of the athlete records as they are coming through; testing their visual acuities and testing their profile vision as needed. We are examining their medical records as well as their eyes, making sure that the findings all match the images that we are seeing and the testing we are doing.

The team uses what they called a slit lamp biomicroscope and it allows us to get a magnified view of the front of the eye and by using special lenses we can also get a magnified view of the inside of the eye, checking the health of the retina and nerves, making sure the media is clear and confirming any medical diagnosis that the athlete has.

Because we are all experienced at working with low vision athletes, a lot of it has to do with watching the athletes for their movements and their performance, making sure that their skills and abilities equal how they are testing with their vision.”

There are several athletes who have failed classification during these last days while others ended with an inconclusive result requiring further examination, meaning they were unable to participate in Germany this weekend. For all the others, everything is now clear and they will be in action soon.

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