BY VOLKER NOLTE
PHOTO BY ED MORAN
The history of the Paralympic movement is fascinating and the achievements of the para-athletes are simply stunning. Special sporting events for people with different levels of impairment have been organized to give these athletes a fair chance to compete. Sports for athletes with disabilities have been around for a long time, but until recently they were little known. A sports movement founded after World War II to help many injured veterans and civilians has evolved into the spectacular competitions we now witness during the Summer and Winter Paralympic Games. One cannot help but admire the spectacular performances of these athletes, especially when one takes a closer look at their individual challenges.
To gain wider recognition, the first international competitions for disabled athletes were strategically held after the Summer and Winter Olympics. This meant that these events were parallel games to the Olympics, which is why Paralympics chosen – it comes from the Greek Sectionwhich means “next to” or “next to”.
To ensure fair competition, criteria were introduced to qualify athletes of equal ability – the so-called “classifications”. A relatively simple classification system has been developed in rowing, based on the body parts an athlete can use: arms and shoulders; torso and arms; legs, torso and arms. This also includes visually impaired athletes. World Rowing originally named the categories after these descriptors but switched to PR1, PR2 and PR3 – the number indicating the level of functionality.
Para rowing has been included in the World Rowing Championships since 2002. It was included in the Paralympic program in 2005 and the first Paralympic events were held in Beijing in 2008. While the Paralympics are held separately from the Olympics and take place shortly after, para rowing is conducted in the same venues, World Rowing went one step further and fully integrated para rowing into the World Rowing Championships. As of 2018, the Para Rowing program consists of nine events: PR1 Singles, PR2 Singles and PR3 Pairs for both women and men, as well as mixed-gender PR2 Doubles, PR3 Doubles and PR3 Fours. The para rowing program for the Paris 2024 Paralympics consists of the PR1 women’s and men’s single boat and the three mixed boats: PR2 doubles, PR3 doubles and PR3 four.
The system of rowing is easy to understand and makes sense – the more body parts you can use, the faster you can row, and separating the athletes accordingly puts them on an even footing. Rowing’s three categories are much easier to understand than, say, the 15 classifications in Paralympic swimming.
Rules were introduced to ensure that the definitions of the various classes were respected. For example, PR1 rowers had to be strapped to the seat at the chest to prevent torso swinging, and PR2 rowers had their legs strapped to the boat to prevent the legs from being used. As is so often the case in competitive sports, rowers and their coaches sought every centimeter of advantage. Result: How tightly the harnesses were wrapped around the athletes became a contentious issue before the races.
To eliminate any room for interpretation, the rules have been changed. PR1 rowers are now strapped to a lower body point, allowing rowers with some core muscle engagement to engage the upper body in their stroke. Naturally, the more body momentum a rower creates, the more stroke length increases. Therefore, in PR1 races, the rowers with the greatest ability to engage their core usually win, while true arm-and-shoulders athletes like rower Steven Haxton, who represented the USA at the 2020 Paralympics, stand virtually no chance. Similar results can be seen in PR2 doubles where the lead crews use some leg movement even with tight seats.
What is particularly troubling about the blurring of the classification system is that it appears that some involved in the decisions were also training rowers with a higher ability to use their core. PR1 can no longer be clearly identified as arm-shoulders rowing and torso-arm rowers should be more accurately classified as PR2+. The layman may not notice the differences, but athletes on the water clearly suffer the consequences, and rowing experts rightly see the changes as an unfair manipulation of the classification system.
As pararowing has evolved and become more serious, small differences in athletes’ disabilities have significantly impacted on-water performance. More classification categories with more accurate assessments of athlete ability would complicate a system whose virtue is simplicity.
Another idea is to handicap athletes according to their impairments. Such a system would allow different classes of boats to be run in the same heat, which would fill the lanes at regional and national regattas with small numbers of competitors. However, the inevitable challenges remind me of the “fiddle factor” that Penny Chuter, former British Rowing Technical Director, used to balance lanes in sit races on windy courses. While no one can question his expertise or intentions, not everyone agreed with his methods – which seems to be the nature of our sport.