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Technology matters in the Paralympics, but the athlete matters more

Technology makes an impact on various events, but the key is to let the athlete’s ability shine through. OIS

Technology matters in the Paralympics, but the athlete matters more

The role of technology in sports is always a hot issue, but is perhaps more present when it comes to the Paralympics because of the more visible connection between person and machine.

With amputation, there is a “blank slate” on which to build. And with today’s technological advancements, the possibilities seem limitless, even to the point of creating techno-envy.

So after the Rio Paralympics, what are the technological innovations in prosthetics that we may see at the next Paralympics in Tokyo 2020? And, perhaps more importantly, how should we view technology’s role in the Paralympics in view of the fundamental principles of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC)?

Many new technologies coming out are enhancing the lives of people with all disabilities, including limb loss.

It is not hard to find articles about powered limbs, robotic arms, mind-control of limbs and 3D printing and how these technologies revolutionise the integration of a person with the prosthesis.

Nigel Ackland demonstrates his carbon fibre bebionic3 myoelectric hand.

However, out of these four innovations, only 3D printing seems to be poised to make a substantial difference on how prostheses are used in the next Paralympics.

3D printing provides a manufacturing system that makes it easier to model and refine a design, like for the aerodynamics of a bicycle, than traditional methods.

This allows designs that might reduce drag during racing, much as has been done in the Olympics.

The biggest contributing factor that 3D printing makes perhaps is two-fold: it allows us to fail much more in the design process than traditional methods, and therefore will allow these innovative designs to become readily adoptable to all in a more accelerated manner.

3D printing will also advance the use of different materials, making prostheses lighter, stronger and potentially more comfortable.

However, we should see these processes more akin to the tweaking of performance and design of equipment done in the Olympics than in enabling individuals to become Paralympians.

Instead, the success of the Paralympians in achieving improved performance is the same attributed to the improved performance in many sports: knowledge of the sport, training, nutrition and dedication.

So, just as “buying” speed will not get one into the the Tour de France, the use of a “blade” prosthesis does not guarantee entrance into the Paralympics. Technology may improve performance, but does not create it without human effort.

It’s all about the athlete

Safety, fairness, universality and physical prowess. These are the four fundamental principles of the IPC regarding the use of technology and equipment in the Paralympics.

This rule mainly applies to wheelchairs and prostheses, the latter lately becoming linked to imagery of cyborgs, trans-humanism and even debates regarding its “fairness” in even the Olympics.

The ‘blade’ features prominently in many athletics events. OIS

The essence of the Paralympics is that technology must be reasonably available to all, safe, fair and, most importantly, must not “enhance performance beyond the natural physical ability of the athlete”.

This means that externally powered sources and large springs are prohibited. And while they may impact the ability of the athletes to improve daily performance and training, many of the advances in prosthetics are at odds with the IPC ruling.

Prostheses are a tool; an extension of the person, more akin currently to the interaction of an athlete with a bicycle or kayak where the design is purpose specific.

Improvements will come in the form of new materials, improved design characteristics and advanced manufacturing techniques before the next Olympics in 2020. However, the vast improvement in performance will more likely stem from general athletic improvement.

For example, the carbon “blade”, or “Cheetah”, was first introduced around 30 years ago and has not significantly changed in that time. Yet 100-metre sprint times in the Paralympics have continued to improve over that time.

This vast improvement is starting to decay, much like in the Olympics. This seems to imply that although the blade is “essential for performance”, it is not the only factor. It still relies on the human element to drive it and any new technology must still have the person at the centre.

The Olympics and Paralympics both have issues of how to deal with technology and the “purity of the sport”, especially in sports that rely on the athlete using an extension of themselves, such as cycling.

But just as we tend to celebrate the indomitable spirit and fortitude of those who reach that pinnacle without focusing on how technology got them there in the Olympics, maybe we should also focus on those same traits of the Paralympian and realise that the technology is part of the sport, but it is really the person that got them there.

We as spectators should focus on the own merits of the athlete and not the technology.