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Divisioning at Special Olympics: compartmentalizing for unity

You cannot classify mental disabilities in the same way as athletes who are in Paralympics for example. So, before the games start you classify them on performance. (Photo: Bavo Delbaere)
by Bavo Delbaere, AIPS Young Reporter, Belgium

SCHLADMING/RAMSAU, April 1, 2017- During the recently finished Special Olympics, all participants were given a fair opportunity to show what their capable of. In order to give all athletes who are taking part a warranty for exiting competition, a system was created that is unique in the world of sports called divisioning. “Special Olympics don’t take risks. Because when you let the contestants compete above their ability level they will, at some point, become very demotivated,” explains Nadine Eggermont, head coach from the Belgian alpine skiers.


Before the tournament is launched the organisation observes the athletes from close by, this process is called ‘assessment’. For time-based sports like cross-country skiing, coaches should submit the best scores from their trainees. For judged sports, skill-based forms must be filled in. That is how a global image from each contestant is formed. But a lot of variables can impact the performances of the special athletes: pressure, medication, playing conditions or the new environment. So, assessments aren’t enough, to be accurate, an exact divisioning should happen during tournament.


Categorisation is a broad concept. Every country and every sport has its own set of rules. “In the USA, we aren’t allowed to bring in skiers who are younger than 16 years old because of safety reasons. And personally, I think we are coaches not babysitters. When you have a big group it’s difficult to spread attention equally, this is also a part of divisioning. Beside, every individual state uses different standards to classify the athletes their ability, so you still need to shift a lot of things when everyone comes together in one tournament,” says Diane Milkulis who was a coach for team USA at the World Winter Games in Austria.

Novice – intermediate - advanced

We will take Alpine skiing as an example to explain how the divisioning games work.

All the participating countries are ordered alphabetically. Andorra’s athletes have the honour of starting off the slope until we eventually round off the day with the athletes from Uzbekistan. Everyone’s time is carefully monitored. Then divisions are composed based on those scores. Athletes with similar times are put into groups where they can battle each other for the top of the stage. There are three types of divisions: novice, intermediate and advanced.

A few things to bare in mind about divisioning. Infographic by Bavo Delbaere using Canva)

Frederique Hillewaert who is a Belgian Alpine skier in the intermediate division explained that he always wants to try and get in a higher division, but when it doesn’t work out it is no problem at all. “As long as I can ski where I belong, I’m happy.”

Bryan Tweit, a member of the American delegation, confirmed: “Athletes don’t really care who is in advanced or novice stage. It’s not important. They can of course watch and learn from each other which is a great help. Divisioning is good for the competition because the participants can aim their goals. They see what it takes to get better and they compete against each other on the same level. But I think the coaches find it important more than the athletes themselves in which division they are.”

Maximum effort

It’s difficult to keep all the participants happy as they all want to return home with a golden medal round their neck. Contestants who improve their divisioning result with more than 15% can be considered a ‘fraud’ and end up disqualified. This is called the maximum effort rule, to get fair divisions all athletes must give their best during a division race- they have to approach it like it’s a real final. The 15% is not a binding rule but kind of a touchstone, there are different margins in every sport.

“Divisioning is inherent to Special Olympics but there is still room for improvement,” said Eddy Beckers who is a member of Special Olympics Belgium. “When weather conditions are different in the finals than during divisioning, results can end up being radically different. For me the best system would be to take the percentage of the slightest improved athlete and to subtract it from the result of the other performers. For example, when the least improved athlete progressed his score with is 6% and the highest improved athlete progressed with 17% he can’t be disqualified when you subtract that 6%. You have to evaluate all the poles separately and think about the context.”

Nadine Eggermont agreed. “It’s difficult to make a waterproof system. In Alpine skiing, there is a 30% improvement margin which very high. Sometimes we see coaches encouraging their athletes not to give their best in divisioning and that’s regrettable. You must have superpowers to improve 30%, so it’s easy for some athletes to influence the results. It’s sad to disqualify athletes sometimes but you have to draw a line somewhere, the system got to be fair.”

Follow Bavo on Twitter @BavoD

The Young Reporters Programme has been made possible thanks to the support of the European Union's Erasmus + programme

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