Ready, winning and enabled: the technology behind the London 2012 Paralympics

Jane Feinmann / 28 August 2012

Advances in prosthetics and equipment are a boon for athletes in the 2012 Paralympics, but when the day comes, it’s training, skill and sheer physical graft that count

In the summer of 1980, amputee athlete Tony Willis took part in the competition of his sporting life in the Netherlands: winning Paralympic pentathlon gold and high jump silver medals for Great Britain. Now 58 and a PE teacher in Berkshire, Tony will be a TV pundit at the London 2012 Paralympics, which open on August 29. He’s just one of 6,000 media representatives providing unprecedented global coverage of disability sport. But 32 years ago, it was a different story.

‘Arnhem was a friendly place,’ recalls Tony, who lost a leg after getting cancer of the knee at the age of eight, ‘but it was definitely a sideshow, with the “real” games being the Olympics in Moscow. The press, in a patronising way, praised us for our guts in participating – not at all what any of us wanted.’

The Games for the Paralysed

The modern Paralympics evolved from its beginnings as an archery competition, the Games for the Paralysed, first held on the lawns of Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire in 1948.

Its founder, Dr Ludwig Guttman, wanted to create an elite sports competition as a focus for rehabilitating Second World War veterans with permanent spinal cord injuries. Today, wheelchair sports (including archery, basketball and rugby) are a major feature of the Paralympics, as spinal cord injury, leading to paraplegia (paralysis of the lower limbs) or quadriplegia (paralysis of three or all limbs), is a significant cause of disability around the world.

It was only in 1980 that the Paralympic Games were opened to all disabled people, amputees as well as people with visual impairment, cerebral palsy and a range of smaller disability groups. That year, custom-built, high-performance sports prostheses were barely at the laboratory stage, with the earliest prototype not used until the 1988 Paralympics in Seoul – the first to be held immediately after and in the same host city as the main Olympic Games.

An unfair advantage? 

Media attention has commented – unfairly, some experts believe – on whether energy-storing prosthetic feet and other technological aids have given some competitors an unfair advantage. Indeed, the South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius has qualified for the able-bodied team. Tony recalls a more basic approach to preparation for Arnhem: ‘It was only late in 1979 that I was invited to participate. I’d been working as a PE teacher for several years and, rather than embarking on an extensive preparatory regime, I relied on my core fitness. I really just turned up.’

However, after the amputation, his cumbersome prosthesis was not suited to athletics and he preferred to compete without it. ‘While I have always had an artificial leg, which I put on whenever I wear a suit, I’ve always been more comfortable hopping. I teach PE one-legged,’ says Tony. ‘In the high jump, we could never have reached those heights if we’d worn prostheses,’ he says. ‘We’d developed a technique that involved “running” straight for the bar and then diving over it.

‘It’s difficult to believe how far technology has advanced since my days. Yet people who criticise the use of technology by athletes such as Pistorius should bear in mind that much the same kind of advances are supporting Olympic athletes as those with disabilities.’

Sporting achievements

Perhaps the problem is with the sheer visibility of the technological input to disabled sports. However, they simply mirror the prosthetic and wheelchair support that are fundamental to allowing many people with disabilities to engage in the tasks of daily living. Thus, Otto Bock Healthcare, one of the many sponsors of this year’s Paralympics, will have 80 technicians, including 12 welders, working out of 10 locations at the Paralympic village to service competitors’ wheelchairs. ‘We’ll be kept pretty busy,’ says spokesperson Anna Parisi.

The analogy, she says, is with Formula 1, cycling and all other sports requiring hardware. ‘Like their able-bodied peers, Paralympians’ achievements will be down to the fact that they are leaner, stronger, faster and lighter than their competitors.’

Such sporting excellence deserves recognition, says Dr David Purdue, Research Associate at the Peter Harrison Centre for Disability Sport at Loughborough University: ‘The Paralympics is an opportunity for elite athletes with a disability from around the world to demonstrate their sporting excellence. The vast majority will have trained daily over several years in pursuit of glory – however, this sporting commitment and the performances achieved are rarely celebrated in a similar manner to able-bodied Olympic triumphs,’ he says. Carbon-fibre prostheses made a huge difference to running speeds of amputees, according to Anna. ‘The record for the 100 metre sprint, for instance, dropped from 25 seconds before their introduction in 1988 down to less than 16 seconds. Since then, only a further three seconds have been shaved off, with the world record now being 12.26 seconds,’ she says.

Wheelchair rugby 

The same is true of wheelchair rugby, with the fast-moving contact sport set to become a 2012 favourite – not least because the latest wheelchairs, made from stronger, lighter, more aerodynamic materials, using the latest cambered wheel technology, allow for faster swivels and movement generally. Yet, as researchers in Queensland, Australia recently reported in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, much the same changes have been achieved in able-bodied sports. Cycling is the obvious example. And the introduction of Vectran fibre in clothing for track and field athletes led to suddenly faster records, and 94% of all swimming races at Beijing were won by competitors wearing new Speedo racer suits with strategically placed polyurethane panels. The British Paralympics Association is expecting that the country’s disabled athletes will win at least 50 gold medals out of 499 and many more bronze and silvers at London 2012. But as with the Olympics, perhaps the most important result for all of us will be the inspiration to participate in sport in the future – not least for the disabled community. And the key, according to Tony Willis, is the right support at the right time. ‘None of us is there for the sympathy vote,’ he says. ‘We want to hear an honest opinion, appreciation of a stunning performance – but, if it’s appropriate, we want the same criticism as Olympic competitors.’

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