Julie Bakke’s role as a classifier is simple – to ensure integrity in sport.
“We’re out to make sure it’s fair for everyone and we’re doing the best job possible for the athlete,” said Bakke.
But what exactly is a classifier?
“Ultimately classification is there to try and help minimize the impact of the disability to allow (athletes) to participate,” said Bakke, who was one of two classifiers from Saskatchewan selected to attend the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.
A classifier’s job is to determine eligibility for athletes in Paralympic sports while helping maximize the athlete’s potential within the rules of the system. Their role is to not hinder the athlete’s progression but instead to determine where they fit, making it fair for everyone.
“Classifiers play an immense ethical role to ensure fair play is at the centre of our sport,” said Julien Gaudet, Saskatchewan Wheelchair Sports Association president. “They’re the ones that determine the difference between function and ability.”
In Bakke’s case, she specializes in wheelchair rugby. In fact, she is currently part of the World Wheelchair Rugby Classification Committee and holds the role of Training Development Officer for all the classifiers in the world.
“There’s all levels of disability so when we’re looking at an athlete, we’re looking at what are their functional abilities and how do we put them in a group that’s similar to their own abilities,” said Bakke. “The classification is based on the International Paralympic Committee. They have a set classification for each sport.
The process of classification starts with an athlete having an eligible impairment. The athlete first needs to provide a medical diagnostic information form completed by a registered medical health doctor. For world wheelchair rugby, an athlete must have at least three limbs or trunk effected to be eligible. Impairments include a motor-power deficiency, limb deficiency, hypertonia, ataxia, apoptosis or a passive range of motion. Then, if the athlete has the minimum impairment and has submitted the paperwork, they are then evaluated and observed by the classifiers ahead of the event.
“We really have to look at things with a fine-tooth comb in order to pick out little subtle details,” said Bakke.
The classifiers spend a few days prior to the tournament evaluating athletes. Bakke says they get about an hour and a half with each athlete to do tests on muscle, range of motion and trunk mobility. Then they move on to the next athlete and so on.
“We have a flow chart that we go through,” said Bakke. “If they don’t actually comply with the minimum criteria, they will be allocated to a sport class of non-eligible for wheelchair rugby.
“That is the worst thing that we do when we tell an athlete that you can’t play.”
After that, the classifiers observe athletes on the court for three days during game action. Then after evaluation and observation, each athlete is issued a “sport class.” Athletes are given a classification rating from 0.5 to 3.5.
“When you have a team (of four athletes) on the court, the combined total classification cannot exceed eight,” said Bakke. “That aims to ensure the impact of impairment is minimized and that it basically keeps the playing field fair.”
The emotion in making that an eligible or non-eligible decision can make it a very challenging job, but an important one to ensure the playing field is equal. And what makes it even more difficult is coaches and teams continuously questioning how the classifiers came to their conclusions, which is why Bakke has made it her goal to provide more information to teams on the exact criteria they are evaluating.
“Coming to a conclusion and making sure that you are doing the best for the athlete and the sport, we have to keep that in mind because you don’t ever want to disadvantage a class,” said Bakke.
But since classifiers are either occupational therapists, physiotherapists or doctors, they have the knowledge, training and education to conduct a proper evaluation. To become a classifier, an individual needs to be a certified health professional in a field that’s relevant to eligible impairment categories. After that, an individual needs to go through training and certification to be eligible to attend international events. And at those major events, there’s also a second panel of classifiers who do the process all over again if an athlete is determined ineligible. There are also technical classifiers who help with the decision process, made up of former athletes or coaches with extensive experience themselves.
As a trained occupational therapist, Bakke first got into classification ten years ago after connecting with the Saskatchewan Wheelchair Sports Association. From there, opportunities kept arising. Along with having gone to the Paralympics in Tokyo, Bakke has traveled to dozens of other places, having recently gone to France for the European championship, Montreal for nationals and Vancouver for the Canada Cup. Currently, she’s in Denmark for the Wheelchair Rugby World Championship.
And like an official, umpire or referee, the classifier’s job can sometimes be thankless – but necessary. While teams can be critical of classifiers if they consider an athlete ineligible, the role they play in keeping integrity and fairness in sport is necessary.
“It’s a high character position,” said Gaudet. “It’s the ultimate tool of fair play for adapted sport.”
“I know that we are appreciated,” said Bakke. “I get a little bit of pride in knowing that we are helping to develop the sport and just helping people to participate.”