How do Paraclimbing Categories Work?
Paraclimbing is a form of climbing designed for people with impairments. Although it is an IPC (International Paralympic Committee) recognised sport, we are yet to see climbing in the Paralympics as it is still very much in its infancy. There are a whopping 20 categories in total in paraclimbing; however, as this is still a growing sport, we often don’t see competitors in all categories and I’ll explain how merging works later in this post. We can split these categories into four separate sections (each with a male/female group) which are as follows:
B: Visually impaired/blind
AU: Arm/forearm amputee
AL: Leg amputee
RP: Limited range, power and stability
These are then split into 2 or 3 different sub-categories that is more specific to the severity of the condition.
B: Visually Impaired/Blind
GB B1 Athlete Jesse Dufton with coach and sight guide Robin O’Leary
Visual impairments come in all shapes and sizes; so, although there are three separate levels of severity within this category, there can still be a huge difference in the way two people within the same sub- category see and adapt to their particular impairment. Visual impairments can be caused by a variety of different things and can affect each person very differently; for instance, some athletes may only have central vision whilst others may only have peripheral etc. This will have a huge affect on the way each individual athlete navigates and climbs.
Different levels of visual impairment
B1: Fully blind/light perception (all competitors in the B1 category must wear a blindfold in competition)
B2: A visual acuity between 1/60 and 2/60 AND/OR a visual field of less than 5%
B3: A visual acuity between 2/60 and 6/60 AND/0R a visual field of 5-20%
When watching visually impaired athletes climb, you’ll notice that the vast majority wear some form of headset and will always come out with a partner who acts as their ‘sight guide’. In competition, blind climbers are able to view their route for a little longer than other athletes and first watch a video of somebody climbing the route on a screen in isolation; this allows their sight guide to take a look at the route, work out beta, and then efficiently describe each section to their climber. On the wall, the sight guide is incredibly important as they have the tricky task of describing the direction, shape, size, distance and technique of the next hold/move to their climber in just a few seconds to prevent the climber hanging around and tiring out. The relationship between a blind climber and their sight guide is very important as the sight guide needs to have a really thorough understanding of how their athlete climbs and the two will often have a set of keywords or a style of communicating that works best for them and allows them to communicate quickly and efficiently.
A common technique for sight guiding (especially when working with severe visual impairments) is to use a clock system. Imagine your climber is surrounded by a massive clock; numbers 12-3 refer to the right arm, numbers 3-6 refer to the right leg and so on..
For climbers with a less severe visual impairment, many sight guides will opt for a laser pointer to point out climbing holds (these are not allowed in competition, however).
If you would like to hear more about sight guiding/visually impaired climbing such as coaching tips, comp experiences etc. feel free to contact me or leave a comment below!
AU: Arm/Forearm Amputee
USA’s AU2 athlete Maureen (Mo) Beck
Unlike the B category, there are only two sub-categories for upper body amputees:
AU1: Arm amputee
AU2: Forearm Amputee
Climbing is a full body workout; however, there’s no doubt it’s pretty tough on our upper body, so AU athletes often have their own specific ways of ascending a route that is very different to an able-bodied climber.
Typically, forearm amputees will have the use of their elbow and perhaps some of their forearm to allow them to hook onto holds, which (with a lot of practise) can allow them a great deal of grip and movement.
Many AU athletes (mainly forearm amputees) will use medical or climbing tape to wrap around their stump; this can help protect the skin and increase grip.
AL: Seating/Leg Amputee
Spanish AL2 Urko Carmona Barandiaran
The AL category also only has two sub-groups:
AL2: Leg amputee
Currently, athletes will compete in the same category whether they use a prosthesis or not; however, as the sport grows, we may see an increase in the number of categories and these athletes may be split into two separate groups.
RP: Limited Range, Power and Stability
GB RP3 athlete Mikey Claverdon
The RP category is undoubtedly the most diverse of paraclimbing categories. As a growing sport, there is a limit to the number of categories we can split the competitors into so the RP category groups together all athletes with conditions that result in (you guessed it) limited range, power and stability. A large number of these conditions are neurological disabilities such as MS, stroke survivors, brain damage and so on. You may also see a number of competitors who climb similarly to an AL/AU athlete due to a condition/accident that has affected the development or use of a limb, placing them in the RP category instead.
This category is a very complex one and you will often see an incredible variety of athletes under the RP umbrella; it’s not as simple to determine whether you qualify to climb in the RP category so if you suffer from a condition that affects you range, power and/or stability when climbing, do contact myself or anyone in the links below and we’ll be more than happy to help you out!
Unfortunately, paraclimbing is still in its infancy and this means we don’t see as many competitors involved internationally as able-bodied climbing (and on top of this, we split them into 20 categories!). Nevertheless, sport climbing is growing rapidly with the aid of the 2020 Olympics and it’s pulling paraclimbing up with it; but for now, we have a solution to ensure all categories that run have a higher number of competitors. This solution is merging.
When a category has no competitors entered into it, it doesn’t run; but when a category has a few competitors (just not enough to officially run) this category gets merged into what is deemed to be a tougher category. This means that all competitors can still climb without deeming the comp unfair by allowing athletes with less severe conditions to compete in a category that is easier for them. This can get a little confusing so here’s an example:
I compete in the B2 category as I am visually impaired. Climbers in B1 have less vision than me and climbers in B3 have more vision than me. If my category was unable to run because there weren’t enough competitors, I would be merged in with the competitors in B3 (so long as they have enough competitors to run). I could not merge into B1 as it would be unfair on the B1 climbers who are now at a disadvantage in their own category. The point of merging is that I still get to compete, but by competing in a harder category, it is not unfair on those within that category as I am now at the disadvantage.
With the help of the 2020 Olympics (and eventually the Paralympics), we hope that paraclimbing will grow enough to allow us to have a larger selection of categories that group athletes together more specifically. Unfortunately, there can still be a lot of diversity within categories in paralympic/disabled sports and this can cause a lot of debate. No disability is identical, so I believe that those getting involved in para-sports should enter with the understanding that it may not always be 100% ‘fair’ (for lack of a better term). Just as one able-bodied athlete might be slightly taller than another, one para-athlete may have a slightly different impairment to another which will equally have its pro’s and con’s. Instead, we should be celebrating the diversity and inclusivity of these sports as well as the strength and determination of the athletes that take part in them.
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