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Paralympic technology

Wheelchair racers speeding to victory, blind swimmers competing for gold, and disabled skiers pushing their bodies to the limit. These are today's Paralympians. They train hard. They play to win. And in recent years, Canadians have been winning big at the Paralympic Games. The Paralympics began as a postwar sporting event designed to get injured ex-soldiers moving again. But by the 1980s the Games had evolved into an elite international competition.

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In 1980, wheelchair athletes had to maneuver big clunky chairs not unlike the ones you'd find in a hospital. And prosthetic legs for amputees may have looked like real legs but were often too uncomfortable and cumbersome to run in. Since those days, there have been phenomenal advances in Paralympic technology. Equipment has been streamlined for optimum competitive performance. In this clip, Paralympian Rob Snoek examines the remarkable evolution of Paralympic technology.
• Paralympic competitive standards have increased immensely over the years. Dr. Robert Steadward gives an example of this progress in his 1997 book, Paralympics: Where Heroes Come: "In 1968 the best time for the men's 1,500 metre wheelchair race was 8:33:2. Today, that same event is completed in nearly three minutes." These improvements are partly because of more intense training programs, but also because of technological advances.

• Paralympic regulations have had to adapt to rapid technology changes. When the sleeker three-wheeled wheelchair first appeared on the track in the mid-1980s, regulations still dictated that a chair had to have four wheels. The three-wheeler was eventually approved for competition a few years later, which effectively wiped out the use of the four-wheeler.

• Today (2004), athletic wheelchairs are generally designed to have two large wheels at the back and one small wheel at the front. New materials are being used, such as titanium and lightweight plastics. And the athletes are typically strapped into their chairs now, so the chairs will be in synch with any movement the athlete's body makes.

• There are now different wheelchair designs for different sports such as racing, tennis, rugby and basketball. Chairs for racing are longer and lower to the ground for optimum forward speed while chairs for basketball and tennis are taller and more upright. Tennis chairs have sharply slanted back wheels so the athlete can move quickly from side to side. And basketball chairs even vary depending on the position you play: forwards have higher seats while guards have more slanted seats so they can turn faster.

• Today (2004), wheelchairs cannot have any mechanized propulsion systems and they must fit within certain size restrictions. These vary depending on the sport. Wheelchairs are all examined by officials before competition begins.

• Artificial limb (prosthetic) technology is also continually evolving. Prosthetics are usually custom-designed to suit the needs of the athlete. A typical racing leg now looks nothing like a real leg, but behaves much like one. It might have a hydraulic knee made of titanium stainless steel. And there would likely be a springy "foot" attached — a curved appendage made of carbon graphite, which can bend without breaking. It works like a spring and helps propel the athletes forward.

• This rapidly evolving technology often leads people to wonder: are the best athletes simply the ones with the best equipment? Paralympian Jeff Adams commented on possible inequities in Paralympics: Where Heroes Come. Adams describes watching the Mexican athletes race in chairs that were "just garbage" at the 1988 Seoul Games. They did OK in spite of their chairs, but they weren't big medal winners. In 1992, they finally got better chairs and "were all of a sudden a power because they got the equipment."

• It can cost thousands of dollars to buy a good racing wheelchair or custom-designed prosthetic leg.
• Sports technology inequity between rich and poor countries isn't just a Paralympic issue. It's an issue at the regular Olympics as well. Technological advances in running shoes, tennis racquets, swimsuits and bicycles, for instance, are rapidly advancing. This has led to similar ethical discussions about the affordability of elite sport.

• Rob Snoek is a Canadian amputee runner who has competed in three Paralympic Games. He currently (2004) works for the CBC as a senior researcher with Sports Saturday. He is also a motivational speaker. He has frequently spoken at elementary schools, teaching children about disabled sport and the power of working toward personal goals.
Medium: Radio
Program: The Inside Track
Broadcast Date: March 26, 2000
Host: Robin Brown
Reporter: Rob Snoek
Duration: 9:34

Last updated: August 31, 2012

Page consulted on September 10, 2014

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