From carbon fibre wheelchairs built using Formula One techniques to a swimming cap that tells blind swimmers when to turn via a smartphone, technology rarely plays a more integrated role in sport than it does at the Paralympics.
The days when disabled athletes had to compete with clunky – often improvised – aids and equipment have been replaced by an era where motor manufacturers, aerospace companies and tech giants compete to provide para-sport with the best gear. Blade runners Participants in the Rio Paralympics over the next fortnight will bid for glory with the help of kit that not only facilitates competition but also allows disabled athletes to challenge – and in some cases out-compete – their able-bodied counterparts.
The advent of the carbon fibre running blade has transformed track and field sport for athletes with amputated or missing legs to the extent that German long jumper Markus Rehm last year set a world record in the event – 8.40m – that would have comfortably won him gold in the Rio Olympics. He is hoping to compete alongside non-disabled athletes at the World Championships in London next year.
The specifications of equipment such as the blades – each fashioned from some 80 layers of carbon fibre – is strictly laid down by the International Paralympic Committee to ensure athletes do not gain an advantage over one another.
But, just as in able-bodied sport where equipment from running spikes to swimming goggles is pored over in the research labs of companies such as Nike or Speedo, the technology is nonetheless being constantly refined to help athletes to go further, higher or faster than before. American athletes in Rio will be competing with wheelchairs made by German luxury car maker BMW.
Made with the same carbon fibre technology used in Formula One racing cars, the new racing wheelchairs were tested in wind-tunnels to minimise drag and maximise performance. The days when disabled athletes had to compete at Stoke Mandeville – the spiritual home of the Paralympic movement – using 25kg wheelchairs has been replaced with the advent of machines weighing as little as a tenth of that. Similarly, British aerospace giant BAE Systems has created new training equipment for ParalympicsGB which has allowed athletes to increase their acceleration by up to 20 per cent using analysis of different body positions.
The advent of 3D printing means athletes can benefit from bespoke fittings such as seats for wheelchair basketball players or body braces that allow those with impairments caused by conditions such as cystic fibrosis to better distribute their muscle power.
Technology is also helping with some of the more arcane logistics of para-sport. For decades, visually-impaired swimmers have relied on “tappers” – coaches equipped with a soft ball attached to a long stick – to know when the end of the pool is approaching with a tap on the head. Now Korean technology giant has developed a swimming cap for members of Spain’s Paralympic team which allows coaches to send vibration alerts to athletes using a smartphone linked via Bluetooth.
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