Prosthesis and sports technology in the Paralympic community

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WRITTEN BY: Tom Lloyd Science and technology has become an increasingly important element of sporting competition. From the detailed monitoring of trai...


Science and technology has become an increasingly important element of sporting competition. From the detailed monitoring of training programs to the ergonomic design of football boots, most sportsmen and women owe their achievements, at least in part, to the work of sports scientists and engineers.
The last decade or so has seen a rapid rate of development in the field of sports science. University laboratories have been a hive of activity, working to shave mere hundredths of a second off an athlete’s time or deliver a fraction more spin when bowling a ball. The tolerances involved are minute, and yet in the world of elite sport it could mean the difference between first and last place.

Nowhere is this synergy between man and technology more prevalent than in the Paralympic community. Since the games began in 1948 at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Aylesbury, engineering has been paramount to those participating in what has become an integral part of the Olympic legacy.
Improvements in Paralympic equipment have been rapid over the years, whether it is the design of a wheelchair or the materials used to reduce the weight of prosthetics, engineers have increasingly pushed the boundaries of what is acceptable. This is a trend that looks set to grow exponentially as advances in nanotechnology, 3D printing and biomedical engineering open whole new windows of opportunity.

Yet as the Paralympics embrace innovation, some quarters of the sporting community have raised concerns about the introduction of performance-enhancing systems. Coining the term ‘technology doping’, their argument is based on the principle that engineering should help to provide a level playing field in sport rather than create an unfair advantage. After all, they claim, sport is about athletic ability over and above anything else.

David James from Sheffield Hallam University bluntly disagrees with this sentiment; “no matter what you think about the Olympic ethos as encompassing this friendly event, it is about winning… In elite sport, if you’re not optimising equipment then someone else will.’
James is part of a team that has worked with numerous Paralympic athletes over the years. In 2003 they worked with Dave Holding on the optimisation of his sprint wheelchair. Using Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD), the research enabled the team to reduce Holding’s drag coefficient quite considerably, shaving a few tenths of a second of his 100m times.  This may seem insignificant to a laymen, but “it’s a lifetime; it separates the top five athletes in his field.”

Simon Choppin, another colleague at Sheffield Hallam, aired a note of caution; “whenever you have technology involved in sport, you immediately create a distance between the athlete and the event, you have to be careful that the performance of that athlete isn’t too reliant upon the equipment and cost of technology.”

The cost of performance enhancing research like that of David James and his team also comes under attack on the grounds that it puts some nations at a financial disadvantage, turning sport into a competition for those with the most money rather than the raw skill, passion and motivation. Whilst there is an element of truth in this, the relative costs must be put in perspective. James continues to explain how “it’s not just about what an athlete is wearing, or the equipment he or she has. This is a miniscule cost in the grand scheme of things… The real costs come from developing a sporting infrastructure in a country, and training schemes.”

As James maintains; “countries will still be able to invest wildly different amounts into their athletes, even if the development of technology is limited. It’s far too simplistic to just say ‘it’s not fair.’" It doesn’t really make sense to regulate an industry that is innovating at such an astonishing rate. After all, the advances made at the forefront of sports science soon filter through into the mainstream. Besides is it right for regulators to prevent Paralympians from being the best they can? Why should a sport so reliant on technology not use it to promote interest?

There is however another dimension to the Paralympic debate, one that has centred around one man, Oscar Pistorius, the South African 400m runner who at London 2012 will be the first Paralympic athlete to compete against able body opponents. His unparalleled and undeniably fantastic achievement has caused some to challenge the notion that Paralympians are at a disadvantage. With the case in point some have even suggested that Pistorius, the only athlete ever to run the second half of a 400m race faster than the first, actually has an unfair advantage, such has been the advance in prosthesis research.

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) has been forced to look closely at the link between Pistorius’s outstanding performance and his carbon-fibre prosthesis. Inspired by a cheetah’s rear leg, it has been contested that Pistorius requires less energy, has a longer stride pattern and suffers less from the effect of lactic acid build up due to his space age appendages.

Of course this notion is refuted by Pistorius, who works just as hard as any other athlete. Vicky Tolfrey, director of the Peter Harrison Centre for Disability Sport at Loughborough University, has raised concerns that allowing Pistorius to compete may not only be unfair on his opponents, but it may change the competitive nature of the Olympics. “If you start allowing an assisted device, you start opening the gates for different sports,” she said. “You could argue that wheelchair racers should be in with runners because they are still doing the same distance.”

Such a contentious point will always raise new questions. That is why it is vital for sports regulatory bodies to confront these issues now. We have opened Pandora ’s Box, with a new wave of exciting sports technology that could mean that athletes are no longer constrained by biology. In the not too distant future we will likely bee seeing a league of disabled athletes who will outperform their able-bodied competitors. It really is just a question of how far do we want to go.


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