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21 July 2017

The Lowdown on Paralympic Winter Sports

In just over half a year’s time the world will look to Pyeongchang as the 2018 Winter Olympic and Paralympic games get underway. We’re incredibly excited about this, even if our endeavours in winter sports aren’t always that successful, so we thought we’d take a closer look at some of the events on offer when the time comes around.

Today we’re going to give you the lowdown on what to expect from the winter Paralympics and the clothing that those athletes will need when they hit the slopes. It’s going to be pretty cold out there, after all.

Para Alpine Skiing

Alpine skiing is the sport that most people associate with the Winter Olympic Games, and the situation is no different when it comes to the Paralympics. With more individual events than the other sports, Para alpine skiing will dominate the 10-day programme in Pyeongchang with a range of exciting competitions.

This will involve:
  • Downhill - athletes take turns skiing down a slope and passing through gates in the fastest time possible.
  • Slalom – two shorter courses with more gates to ski through, where the times for both are combined to give the final ranking.
  • Giant slalom – similar to the slalom, however the course is longer and there are fewer gates to go through.
  • Super-G – similar to the downhill, but slightly shorter and without the need to weave through gates.
  • Super combined – two different courses that involve two of the previous disciplines, usually slalom for one and downhill or super-G for the other.

There are fifteen different classifications in Para alpine skiing, starting with LW 1-9. LW 1-4 is for skiers with impairments affecting either one or both of their legs, while LW 5-8 is the same for those whose disability comes from their arms. People who struggle with coordination problems because they have impairments in both their arms and legs go into the LW 9 class.

Sit skiers are designated into the LW 10-12 classes based on their trunk control, because all of them have their disability in their legs. Sit skiing works by having the racer strapped into a bucket seat attached above a single ski and using their upper body to navigate the twists and turns of the course.

Those skiing with a visual impairment go into the final set of classes – B 1-3. This covers a range of visual ability, from complete blindness to a restricted field of vision less than 40 degrees in diameter. As with any sport that involves athletes with severe vision loss, these skiers have a guide who they follow down the slope. The verbal direction that these guides offer is paramount to the skier staying on course and making it to the finish line in the fastest time possible.

Para Cross-Country Skiing

Para cross-country skiing, also known as Nordic skiing because of the way the boot is attached to the ski, is another of the most popular events set for Pyeongchang with a very busy schedule of events planned for athletes of varying disabilities.

The competitions are carried out over a variety of distances, ranging from 2.5km to 20km, with team relays also included in the line-up. Winners are decided by a percentage system which adjusts the time formula depending on the class of each racer, meaning that the fastest athlete may not be the one who takes home the gold. These percentages can differ depending on whether the classic (striding forward) or free (side-to-side) technique is utilised in the event.

Cross-country skiing is featured as one of the two events in the Para biathlon alongside rifle shooting. Here, racers compete on a 2km or 2.5km course that they travel round three or five times in the free technique, with a break in-between where they must hit two targets that are set 10m away. If one or both of these targets are missed, the racer is penalised by having their overall time increased.

In some cases, elements of the event are adjusted to suit the disabilities of those competing. Those racing in the B classes with visual impairment use electronic rifles that help them aim through sound cues. The tone increases in pitch the closer the rifle is to the centre of the target, making it easier for them to aim better. The targets are also increased to a diameter of 30mm compared to the 20mm ones used for LW class athletes.

All athlete classes that can compete in the alpine skiing events are also eligible to participate in the biathlon, apart from those in the LW 1 class.

Para Snowboarding

Snowboarding only became a sport in the Paralympic games at Sochi in 2014, however back then it was included as part of the alpine skiing programme of events. Now that the sport has become its own discipline, there are more medals to be won and the chance for a wider range of disabled athletes to participate.

The individual events that they will compete in at Pyeongchang are:
  • Banked slalom – riders performs three runs on one course, either U-shaped or with bumps and dips, and the best of those runs determines their final ranking.
  • Snowboard cross (head-to-head) – the qualification stage is the same as the banked slalom, with the finals then having two people compete against one another on a course with a wide range of features.
  • Snowboard cross (time trial) – similar to the banked slalom event but with the snowboard cross head-to-head course.
  • Giant slalom – athletes do two runs of a course with the combined time providing the rankings.
As it stands, the athletes whose impairments consist of reduced muscle power and range of motion, limb deficiency, ataxia, leg-length difference, hypertonia and athetosis are the only ones able to compete. However, with the sport only really being in its infancy, this is likely to develop and grow in the coming years.

The classification for Para snowboarding consists of the SB-LL1, SB-LL2 and SB-UL. The first of these classes covers those with a significant impairment in one leg or similar combined level of impairment in both legs. This is similar for the second class, however their activity is less limited by their disability and they have a better ability to balance and control their board. SB-UL athletes are those with impairments in their upper limbs, such as an arm amputation.

What to Wear?

When it comes to sports out in the snow, there is little difference between what disabled and able-bodied athletes wear to stay warm and ensure their clothing doesn’t interfere with their performance.

Layers are key up on the snowy slopes where these events take place, although there is such a thing as wearing too many clothes, even in the bitter cold. The effort of exercising the body while competing in a skiing or snowboarding event will cause it body to exude heat and sweat. All athletes are advised to wear the three main layers which are:
  • Wickering – base layer (thermal underwear) usually made of polyester or another synthetic fibre that has wicking power. This keeps athletes warm and dry by moving moisture from the skin and passing it through the fabric to evaporate.
  • Insulating – middle layer (jumpers and pullovers) usually made of fleece or wool that keeps heat in by trapping air between its fibres.
  • Protection – exterior layer (shell jacket) made to be wind and waterproof to repel water and allow for perspiration to evaporate.
In addition to this, athletes taking to the snow require hats, gloves and socks that are all suitable for the environment. Helmets or knit hats are ideal for keeping your head warm, while gloves or mittens do the same for your hands. Wool or acrylic socks do the best job for their feet, but they shouldn’t be too thick.

Depending on whether an athlete is a skier or snowboarder, there are some differences in how these clothes are made. For example, ski jackets are generally made to be slimmer than those used for snowboarding because of the difference in movement between the two sports. The thinner design helps to support aerodynamics and retain heat. Snowboard jackets tend to be baggier to assist with the more varied movements these athletes make, while also being longer at the back because of how much sitting is involved.

These differences are also found in ski and snowboard pants, with both of them having additional padding in separate areas to provide support where necessary. The likelihood of landing on knees or backside when snowboarding means that these parts are reinforced, whereas it’s the ankles for skiers to prevent their skis from cutting into them.

James Darvill

James is a passionate scriptwriter and reluctant poet with a talent for the dystopian. When he’s not staying up late watching the Simpsons he’s beating the world at Mario Kart, always with a glass of wine in hand.