Removing the hurdles on the path to the Paralympics

02 September 2016

The Rio 2016 Olympic Games saw Team GB return home with an array of Olympic medals, making the nation proud. But that’s just the half of it. Now, our attention turns to the Paralympics GB athletes, who are warming up in Rio ready for their time to ‘go for gold’.

On 7 September the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games begin, with 264 British athletes competing in 19 different sports over the two weeks. For athletes living with intellectual disabilities (ID), the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games are as accessible as they have been since the Sydney Games 16 years ago, yet the amount of events open to these athletes still only stands at 3%.

Back in 2000, it transpired that a large number of the Paralympic Spanish Basketball team did not have learning disabilities, after they received a gold medal. The team were stripped of their awards and the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) banned all athletes with learning difficulties from competing in the Games until more rigorous eligibility tests were implemented.

Starting in 2009, Professor Jan Burns, Head of the School of Psychology, Politics and Sociology at Canterbury Christ Church University, as part of an international team extensively researched and developed, a robust eligibility and classification system to change this ruling and allow athletes with intellectual disabilities to compete again on the international stage. The team’s research succeeded and the London 2012 Paralympics saw athletes with learning disabilities compete again in the sports of athletics, swimming and table tennis.

The classification research won the UK Research Councils Gold Podium Research Award for exceptional research at the London 2012 Games, and in 2015, Professor Burns was recognised in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list, receiving an MBE for her work.

In the four years since the London Games Professor Burns, who is also Head of Eligibility at the International Association of Sport for Para-athletes with Intellectual Disabilities (INAS), has been continuing her work aiming to enable more athletes with intellectual disabilities to qualify for more events in the Rio. She has successfully contributed to over 1000 athletes being added to the master list of eligible athletes. In Rio, ID athletes will be competing in more athletic and swimming events than in London, including the 400m, 800m and the 1500m in athletics and the medley races in swimming. She has also been involved in training a further 15 intellectual disability classifiers for the IPC and has worked with over 35 psychologists around the world as part of managing the eligibility process.

Professor Burns said: “I was hoping to say that we would have more intellectually disabled athletes in Rio than London, however there are other factors this year which have skewed this, one factor being that Russia’s athletes are excluded and their places are currently being allocated.

“However, I am absolutely thrilled with the progress we have made since London 2012, although there is still more to be done. Myself, and a number of doctorate-level students from the University’s Applied Psychology programme, are currently researching and developing a second class for more impaired athletes competing in the INAS events. We are also working with new sports such as Taekwondo, Nordic Ski and Equestrian and it would be fantastic to see further developments for the Tokyo 2020 Games and future winter Games.”

The number of nations involved in the INAS has increased from 67 in the London Games, to 82 in the Rio Games, and over 130,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities across the world have been involved in INAS events. The success of Professor Burns’ research now enables INAS to start to widen their work to include athletes with autism and people with acquired head injuries.

Notes to Editor

Canterbury Christ Church University

Canterbury Christ Church University is a modern university with a particular strength in higher education for the public services.

With 17,000 students across Kent and Medway, its courses span a wide range of academic and professional subject areas.

  • 95% of our UK undergraduates were in employment or further studies six months after completing their studies*.
  • We are one of the South East’s largest providers of education, training and skills leading to public service careers.

*2013/14 Destination of Leavers from Higher Education survey


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Last edited: 14/12/2018 23:09:00