The race is on in the hi-tech Paralympics

Engineers more used to working with fighter jets and Formula 1 cars are giving disabled athletes a winning edge.

Simon Usborne@susborne
Thursday 30 August 2012 00:02

Technology has never played such a crucial role in the Olympics. Ask Team GB's rivals in the velodrome, where defeated French coaches went so far as to suggest Britain's focus on the engineering involved a supply of secret wheels. But it is at the Paralympics that technology can truly give flight to sporting dreams. Oscar Pistorius's running blades, back on the track next week after their historic debut at the Olympics, are the most famous among a gallery of designs and devices helping disabled athletes to go faster, higher and stronger.

Innovation also brings with it controversy, however, and claims from some countries that the price of devices intended to put athletes on a level playing field can lift them far above it. Cambodia, home to the highest concentration of amputees, but not a lot of cash, is sending one athlete to London.

Thin Sen Hong, a sprinter, has a relatively basic running blade paid for by donations from friends, leading her coach to tell the AFP news agency this week that a widening technology gap separated his runner from those with prosthetics "worth tens of thousands of dollars".

Whatever the debate on the influence of technology in any sport the Paralympics are, more than ever, a showcase for more than superhuman strength and spirit. In 1948 at the Games hosted for patients with spinal injuries at Stoke Mandeville hospital in Buckinghamshire – the forerunner of the modern Paralympics – the wheelchairs weighed ten times as much as today's models. It's a similar story in other sports, too.

Blade runner

More than 80 layers of carbon fibre make up the blades now used by almost all amputee runners at the Paralympics. Oscar Pistorius, the Blade Runner himself, is their most famous wearer, having powered to four Paralympic golds in Beijing and Athens. The South African wears Flex-Foot Cheetah prosthetics invented by US amputee Van Phillips and now produced by the Icelandic firm, Ossur. The blade-style leg was the first to store energy like a spring, re-using it at the crucial moment the leg pushes off from the ground. Pistorius's leg can return 90 per cent of the energy it stores, far short of the 250 per cent return achieved by a real leg. Pistorius had to prove the blade offered no special advantage before he was allowed to run at the Olympics.

Bionic woman

Half of Britain's Paralympians will watch the action from their sofas or training camps, two years before the Winter Games at Sochi in Russia. Technology is as crucial there, on and off the snow and ice. Jane Sowerby is a downhill sit skier who was left paralysed after a fall in 2003. She competed at the Winter Games in Vancouver two years ago and has since learnt to walk again with the aid of a bionic suit.

The ReWalk exoskeleton, provided by Yorkshire-based Cyclone Technology, straps to Sowerby's legs. As she shifts her balance, sensors in the unit trigger the desired movement in the knees and hips to initiate steps, supported by crutches. The system helped Claire Lomas to complete the London Marathon this year. Lomas, who was paralysed in a horse-riding accident, also used her ReWalk to help her light the Paralympic cauldron in Trafalgar Square last week.

Slide boules

High technology meets one of the more sedate sports on the Paralympics roster in boccia, a variant of French boules played from wheelchairs. Competitors in the BC3 category use ramps to launch the leather balls, which they try to roll closer to the jack than those of the opposing team. A ramp is a ramp, you might think, but to achieve the greatest accuracy, British boccia players including Jessica Hunter, above, will use carbon-fibre models made by Angle Consulting, a Hertfordshire firm more used to working on Formula 1 cars. Precise and lightweight, they have already given Britain's players an edge, becoming as envied among competitors as Chris Hoy's wheels.

Wheel advantage

The wheelchair offers as much potential for technological innovation as the bicycle and nations have become locked in a similar arms race within the rules set by the International Paralympic Committee to produce the best models for the track as well as the basketball court.

British racers David Weir, a double gold medallist in Beijing, and Shelly Woods, who holds the record for the London Marathon, are among several athletes to test their chairs inside the wind tunnel at BAE Systems in Lancashire. Engineers from UK Sport's Research and Innovation team, the same outfit that makes Team GB's stealthy black bicycles, use readings to perfect posture as well as components to improve the racer's aerodynamic profile. The basketball chairs are built using seat-forming technology from BMW (the Japanese team works with Honda) and lightweight carbon fibre.

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