Sports engineering and science have been at the forefront of the Paralympics since the games were introduced at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Aylesbury. Using sport as part of a rehabilitation program for injured soldiers, neurologist Sir Ludwig Guttman set up competitions with patients from other hospitals to coincide with the London Olympic Games. Over the following decade, hundreds of hospitals and injury units for the disabled became involved in using sport for rehabilitation, and now, over half a century later, the Paralympic Games are one of the outstanding legacies of the Olympics.
In 2008, sports engineering and science helped to produce one of the defining moments in Olympic history, when South African runner Oscar ‘Blade Runner’ Pistorius lined up for the qualifying race for the Beijing games. As the crowd exploded in applause for Pistorius, it was the first time he had been able to compete against non-disabled athletes. A double amputee, Pistorius ran on specially designed carbon fiber ‘blades,’ worn just below the knee.
Since Pistorius’ massive success on the Paralympic scene, it has reignited the intense and heated debate about whether technology has any place in the Olympic Games. Relying on technology more than any other type of athlete, Paralympians need constant advances to compete in the highest level of sport. Although improvements in recent years have been rapid, so has the debate on what is acceptable in terms of technological participation. From designing new wheelchairs to reducing the weight of prosthetics with the latest materials, some engineers say that the line between level participation and advantage is becoming increasingly grey.
Technology in Sport
Although a relatively new phenomenon, the influx of technology to help disabled athletes to go longer and faster was imminent, and that if a disabled athlete weren’t optimizing their equipment, then another certainly would be. Critics of the use of technology by Paralympians say that if anything, it should be used to level the playing field, allowing all athletes with disabilities to participate fairly. The argument has also split the views of athletes, and whether or not athletic ability or winning was the most important factor in participation.
In 2003, a team of scientists and engineers at Sheffield Hallam University worked with Paralympic champion Dave Holding to create a new wheelchair design. The team found inefficiencies in the aerodynamics of the wheelchair and awake effect that was being caused by a gap in Holding’s shoulders. As the team redesigned and optimized the wheelchair, they found that they could reduce drag by 3 percent over 100m, and combined with reductions in the weight of the chair, could improve his sprint time by 16 percent – 0.16 seconds by 100m.
Due to financial restraints and sponsorship, many other athletes do not have access to the technological optimization given to Dave Holding’s wheelchair, ultimately leaving them at a loss. Furthermore, after an investigation by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAFF) into the physical strain Pistorius’ body was going through, it was discovered that the carbon-fiber prosthesis required less energy than a complete leg. It also produced a more extended stride pattern and did not cause lactic acid to get released into the bloodstream.
Although the new advancements in prosthesis is providing hundreds of thousands of people a glimpse of a fitter, more flexible lifestyle, there will continue to be an underlying argument regarding Paralympic athletes and how technology can be used to gain advantages on the track. Robotic ankle joins with their energy supply have already been developed, paving the way for many more advancements in artificial body systems.