15 August 2008

Technology a key part of paralympic sports

Watch the Paralympics for any length of time and you will quickly see that technology plays an integral part in the event.

When athletes with disabilities compete, there is a need to provide some support in most sports.

From the need to adapt wheelchairs for use in racing, basketball, tennis and wheelchair rugby, to the Flex Feet prosthetics made famous by the "Blade Runner" Oscar Pistorius of South Africa, the range of technological aids for Paralympic athletes is growing all the time.

Associate Professor Lachlan Thompson from the school of aeronautics and mechanical engineering at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology says advances like the Flex Feet - prosthetics fitted in place of amputated legs using carbon fibre and titanium for strength, light weight and extra flexibility - "very clearly are used to help people achieve quite exceptional performances".

RMIT has eight professional researchers, lecturers and professors plus 20 post-graduate students, all intent on engineering the next advance for Olympic and Paralympic sport, including motor sports for disabled people. They form part of a national and international quest to develop new sporting technology.

"It's a challenge, it's the most rewarding part of my career I've ever had," Professor Thompson says. "I've seen athletes with bicycles I've designed get on the dais. I've seen Paralympians get on the dais. When you develop technology and the athletes using it win or do a personal best, it's addictive, it's like running the race yourself."

How do scientists go about changing the way athletes compete in their sports? "You read the rules first. You say to yourself this is what we can't do [legally]. Now let's start working out how to make this person go faster."

In addition to the Flex Feet, the introduction of new wheelchair technology in time for Atlanta and Sydney - with many chairs made from titanium or aircraft aluminium - led to improved performances, but the criticism from some quarters was that the new technology was just not widely enough available.

It is true that in comparison, say, with the new Speedo swimsuit, the latest Paralympic technology is not as widely available. Almost every swimmer at the Olympics had the new suit, where many people could not afford the latest high-tech wheelchairs or carbon fibre Flex Feet, or other advances.

Professor Thompson acknowledges the ability to spread the technology is largely a matter of dollars and cents. "If it became trendy tomorrow for people to wear prosthetic feet, and everybody wanted one, they would have to be mass produced and you would get economies of scale," he says.

"We know that with this technology we can give [disabled] people a better quality of life - there's a social benefit that flows from having this technology at the Paralympics."

He believes the spread of technology is definitely improving. "The fact that people can now get Flex Feet [commercially] in Sydney or Melbourne, rather than having to go to a clinic, is great."

Professor Thompson says the age of technological improvement has not stalled since the days of 1996-2000. "It's still improving, it's going ahead in leaps and bounds,'' he says.

"In the past there was a lot of trial and error. Now there is such a database [of knowledge] built up, that we can design something for all types of athletes. [However] it gets very hard to produce technology that gives a dominant edge to a particular athlete."

Finger-strengthening gloves

One area of technological improvement is in production of gloves. "For people who have poor finger strength, they get gloves that have small carbon fibre inserts. If you need the ability to have a high drawback [of a string] in archery, for example, the gloves give added strength for the fingers."

Another area of improvement is in clothing, not just swimwear. "One of the big problems for athletes is they often below the waist don't have the sense of feeling which means they can't tell when they are getting very cold."

This means when athletes are waiting between rounds or for their turn to compete, they can get extremely cold, which reduces their ability to perform at their optimum.

Some of the new clothing allows athletes to remain warm until they are actually performing, at which point activity is sensed prompting the release of excess heat.

Flex Foot technology initially was fairly limited, suitable only for certain types of amputees. These days, however, it doesn't matter whether an athlete's leg has been amputated at the knee or the ankle, the technology is available to fit.

Professor Thompson says that while there are questions of equity in Paralympic sport, the widening of availability will not only have an effect on times and performances in Beijing, but will also improve levels of general competition.

"I think what we're going to see is that where in the past you had one athlete who had the in-built advantage from the technology [and with significant ability] now you are going to see two or three athletes in particular events with that advantage.

"The fact that someone else is pounding along half a metre behind you is going to motivate you. The prospect of being beaten is going to motivate you. You will see this reflected on the times and the performances, and it means that races and competitions will be closer [than before].

"I think there will always be occasions you will have an outstanding athlete whether it's Olympics, world championships or Paralympics. There will always be one or two people who will dominate sports, but it [their time at the top] will be for two to three years, not two or three Paralympics. People will be working harder to catch up."

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