Rolling Sport - WC Rugby Behind the Scenes

In 2006 the IWRF Classification president asked if I would be the head classifier at the Oceania Zonal Championships in Sydney in November 2007.  I accepted, knowing that it would be hard work, very challenging but also a lot of fun.

I had been head classifier two years before when South Africa hosted the tournament. But it is very different when the tournament is half way around the world and I have never met any of the people I would be working with.




 Koos Jacobs in his one-arm-drive wheelchair, showing what world what guts and determination are made of.

Nicky Coetzee defending team mate Lukas Sithole as he gathers up the ball on his way to score against China. 

The first job was to select and invite a panel of classifiers. I needed two panels, each with three classifiers and I planned to run a training workshop, so I needed a trainer. The classifiers had to be selected according to their qualifications and sourced from countries around the world to make up a “legal panel“ according to IWRF regulations.

I had to ensure that there were enough experienced classifiers and create opportunities for new classifiers who needed the experience to improve their qualifications. The next step was to organize flights, transport, accommodation, etc. The organizing committee helped, making it easier for me.

Closer to the event we received all the team details and every athlete’s class had to be checked against the database. Each athlete without a permanent class had to be classified.  To get a permanent class they had to be classified three times in four years without any change in class.  Of the 74 athletes, 45 had to undergo classification before the tournament. Of those, 25 were new and had never been classified before. 23 of them did not speak English, so we had to use a translator.




 Victor Buitendag and Bennie Dorfling trying to stop Dan Buckingham from New Zealand from scoring.

 a classification panel sitting at their table on courtside, observing athletes!

We had only two days to complete classification before the start of the tournament. All 45 athletes had to do a bench test, testing muscle strength of arms and hands, balance testing and then functional testing which involved wheelchair and ball skills required during the game.

A precise schedule was worked out to fit all the athletes into the allotted time.  We had two classification panels, so the Chinese and Korean teams were asked to bring two translators each to speed up the process. The Chinese team arrived with one. The whole classification and transport schedule had to be rearranged.

Fortunately all the classifiers and trainees arrived on time. The two days of bench testing ran as smoothly as I could ever have hoped for. The athletes all arrived on time and most were cooperative.  We often get athletes pretending to be weaker to try and get the lowest class possible; it can be incredibly frustrating.

Athletes happy
After two long days the tournament began. I had to distribute the classification lists showing the results of all the newly classified athletes, and make classification cards for all the new athletes. I had to check that the other athletes were playing with the correct classification card. When the classification lists get distributed we usually receive a few protests from athletes who believe their own or another athlete’s class is incorrect. This time we received none which suggests that the athletes were happy with the classification and that seldom happens!  

During the games the two panels watch each athlete to confirm that they have been given the correct class.  All aspects of their game are observed and compared with other athletes in the same class.  We can see their full potential when they are on court in competition. This is when we see if an athlete has been fully cooperative during classification.  Once the panel feels that they have observed the athlete enough on court and their class has been finalised, the athlete is informed of his class. Changes are sometimes met with fierce resistance but fortunately at this tournament no changes were necessary.

Each morning of the tournament, I ran classification-training sessions for new classifiers and Dr Viola Altman from Holland presented the advanced workshops. She has done a lot of research, mainly looking at consistency of classification and helping to clarify borderline features between the classes.

One of these workshops made us aware of an Australian athlete who appeared stronger than the other athletes in his class. He had a permanent class, which meant that the other athletes were unable to protest him. I spent some time observing him on court and felt that he showed enough of the features of the stronger class to suggest that he could be in the incorrect class. Permanent class status is important for the athletes as class changes can disrupt their team line-ups. They are allowed 4 athletes on court at any one time with a total of 8 classification points. This means that they have to balance out their more functional athletes with less functional athletes.

The athletes for each line-up train together and work out team strategies, so if one of their classes is changed up it means that they are unable to participate together and they have to play with a different line-up. After months of training together and working out strategies, this can be very frustrating and disruptive for the teams; as a result they spend a lot of money and effort to get their athletes to permanent class status.

I called in the borderline athlete for a head classifiers protest, which meant that he had to go through the full classification again. We had to handle it very cautiously because the press could give us a hard time.  They were everywhere when the Australian team played!

It was also stressful for the athlete; if his class went up it would impact on him and his team.  He might never play again. The Australian coach and team manager took the protest news very well. The athlete cooperated fully with the panel. I was really impressed with the Australian sportsmanship!  In a previous experience with the Australian team at the Paralympics, we had been on the receiving end of violent verbal abuse, so I was pleasantly surprised by their reaction. The panel decided he was in the correct class; he had learned remarkable compensation techniques that made him look so strong on court. This decision was a relief for everyone. I was elated that we did not have to go through the stress of changing a permanent class.

Afterwards the athlete thanked us.  He had always questioned his class and frequently got comments about being in the wrong class. At last we had removed his doubts.

Once all the athletes’ classes are finalised, and some administrative work is done, the classifiers’ job is finished. For the first time we could watch a game instead of watching individual athletes.

Unaware of scores
When we observe athletes, we get so focused on the individual athlete’s performance we are not even aware of the scores. At the end of each day we would walk from the stadium to the hotel in the Sydney Olympic Park.  It was a good time to reflect on the decisions of the day, and my mind could not help wondering what the atmosphere was like in those same streets during the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000.




functional testing of Lukas Sithole 

 Dr Altman demonstrating the difference in shape between a 2,5 and 3,0 point hand.

After five days of long hours doing bench testing, functional skills testing, court observations and training sessions, the classifiers had an afternoon and evening off.  We caught the ferry, visited the Opera House, and did the tourist thing in Sydney. At this point I realise what strong friendships have been forged, even though everyone comes from such different backgrounds.   

The last day of the tournament is a time to reflect on an intense week that is so far removed from normal life.  People who before the tournament were just names at the end of an email had become good friends. But they would soon drift out of my life again. Being a classifier is not an easy job. We often have to make difficult decisions in pressured situations, knowing that the result of our decisions could affect an athlete’s career.

At the World Championships in 2006 I was on a panel that had to make a protest decision on an athlete who blatantly threatened to take us to court if he did not agree with our decision. There have been many occasions where the classifiers have been blamed for causing a team to lose a tournament as a result of class changes that we made. Working as a team under this pressure can really pull people together. I got to the end of the tournament with the sense of a job well done, with new skills under my belt, with a number of classifiers who had been moved up in the qualification process, and the knowledge that I had done my best to add to the “fairness of the game.”

Sports photos © Chérie Harris -

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