Just like the Olympic Games, the Paralympic Games are full of sporting greatness and remarkable characters. But unlike Olympians, Paralympians use the equipment for more than just an advantage, it’s what allows them to compete. Engineers have developed ingenious designs to enable athletes with a wide range of injuries and disabilities to perform at their highest level.
In the aftermath of Paralympic Games filled with world record performancewe took a look at some of the technical equipment used in competitions such as triathlon, goalball, athletics and the infamously brutal”murder ball.”
Estimated cost: $4,000 to $6,000
Running blades are so effective that Blake Leeper, a double amputee, started running against able-bodied athletes after winning medals at the 2012 Paralympic Games. He was barred from Olympic competition because some argued that running blades offered an unfair advantage.
The first racing blade was created by Van Phillips, who lost a leg in a water-skiing accident in the 1970s. He was unhappy with the prosthetics available at the time, which mimicked human bone structure. Instead, he developed a new concept based on energetic recoil of tendons and ligaments. The Cheetah was launched in 1996 and quickly became widely used by Paralympic athletes.
Today, several companies manufacture racing blades, and bionic limbs are becoming lighter, elastic, and durable. Some blades are constructed from up to 90 layers of carbon fiber – some thinner than a human hair – fused together in a 3D printing process.
Blades differ in their degree of flex. A sprinter with a fast spin and low ground contact time might opt for a stiffer blade; long-distance runners can choose one with more flexibility to reduce the impact on the body. They also have significant differences in fit and movement. Above-knee amputees can opt for a prosthesis with a bionic knee joint that allows for a more familiar up and down running action, or one that creates a straight leg from hip to blade and requires a round stride. Factors such as stump length, whether one or both legs have been amputated, and personal preference also factor into the decision.
For example, unlike some of his rivals, British champion Richard Whitehead runs with a straight leg prosthesis, which means his forward momentum comes from hip rotation. Although this made his starts relatively slow, his dominating speed earned him two golds and a silver in the T42. 200 meter event, for above the knee amputees.
Estimated cost: $10,000 to $12,000
With a racing wheelchair, the best para-athletes can reach speeds of around 30 miles per hour (that’s three miles per hour faster than Usain Bolt). These gears, on wheels, bring the sport closer to cycling rather than running. For example, riders often try to take advantage of the repechage, slipping behind a rival until the end of an event.
The effort, cost and engineering that goes into racing chairs also reflects cycling. The chairs are made from lightweight carbon fiber or titanium, and aerodynamics play a key role in the design. The big difference is of course that the athlete uses the arms instead of the legs for power, the rotating thrust rims on the wheels which drive a single gear. In this case, the circumference of the thrust rim dictates how hard the chair will move forward. A larger circumference means it is easier to roll the chair initially, but a smaller push rim has the advantage of being able to deliver more power per push. (Runners use gloves to protect their hands.)
Management is another matter. A “compensator” which acts as a rudder is positioned just below the frame and connected to the front wheel. It allows for fine adjustments when rounding a curve on the trail or battling wind resistance on the road. Para athletes spend years perfecting their technique for pushing and rolling at high speeds.
Beyond racing, four other Paralympic wheelchair sports – basketball, fencing, rugby and tennis – require wheelchairs designed for agility rather than straight-line speed. The basketball chair, for example, has wheels that are steeply angled inwards to make turning easier. They’re made of titanium or aluminum to withstand the amount of contact they receive during a game, although not quite as much as the chairs used by rugby players (below).
Estimated cost: $10,000 to $15,000
These wheelchairs deserve a separate category. Even with a design approach that emphasizes durability, many don’t last long. This is because Wheelchair Rugby is also known as Murderball.
The wheelchairs used by attackers and defenders tend to differ. Attack chairs are shorter and have a protective bumper and curved wings to allow them to spin quickly and evade defenders. Defensive chairs have a protruding bumper specifically designed to “hook” and hold an attacker back, much like you might tackle or block in conventional rugby or on a gridiron.
Unlike sports that have different classes for athletes with different levels of body function or injury, wheelchair rugby brings all athletes together on the field. Those with less of a disability tend to take on attacking roles. It is also a mixed sport, and in Tokyo, Kylie Grimes became the first woman to win rugby gold when Great Britain beat the United States in the title match.
Unsurprisingly, chair maintenance never ends. Axles, tires and wheels require repairs or complete overhauls after each game. Regular competitors will require full chair replacements every two years.
Estimated cost: $13,000 to $16,000
Paralympic bike brings together different types and levels of disability with four categories of gear: handcycles, tricycles, bicycles and tandems. Tricycles are typically used by athletes who can use their legs but have balance issues that prevent them from using bikes. Some athletes may use modified bikes, while visually impaired competitors use tandem bikes with guides. Hand cyclists use their arms, creating a sport that falls somewhere between cycling and wheelchair racing.
There are five classes of handcycle riders ranging from H1 to H5, where higher numbers indicate restriction in the lower limbs only and lower numbers indicate upper and lower limb impairment. A hand bike is like a normal upside down bike or a recumbent bike Hand Operated: Athletes hold the pedals with their hands rather than their feet, and custom grips act as wedges. The brakes are integrated into the manual pedals. In other ways, they resemble regular bicycles, often with carbon frames, electronic shifters and models with over 30 speeds.
Aerodynamics are crucial: the low profile allows athletes to cut through the wind at speeds over 40 miles per hour. As the design evolved, the rear wheels shrank and became deeper and deeper, decreasing wind resistance (although they may increase rolling resistance through the tires). Check Out These Stealths Pictures Team USA bikes in Tokyo.
Estimated cost: $70 per ball or set
For many Paralympic ball sports, the key equipment is the ball itself.
Goalball and five-a-side soccer are both played by athletes with visual impairments. Typically, all players are blindfolded to protect the integrity of the sport, and in goalball players lie down and roll the ball by hand. In both sports, balls have built-in bells, so players must use hand-ear coordination. A goal ball is the size of a basketball but twice its weight.
Goalball has no equivalent at the Olympics, and even among Paralympic sports it stands out for the longevity of its star athletes. Asya Miller and Lisa Czechowski, american goalball playershave been there for two decades, and they competed in their sixth Paralympic Games in Tokyo (they won silver).
Boccia is also unique to the Paralympic Games but is similar to pétanque; each athlete or team throws a series of balls to try to get as close to the jack as possible. It was originally designed to be played by athletes with cerebral palsy, although at the Paralympic level it includes athletes with other impairments affecting motor skills. The balls are made of leather, for an easy grip, and filled with plastic pellets to prevent them from bouncing. They can be kicked, thrown, rolled on the ground or, for athletes with the most severe disabilities, rolled on ramps.
British para-athlete David Smith won a boccia gold medal in Tokyo, retaining his title of world best in the BC1 ranking (for athletes with intense activity limitations affecting their legs, arms and trunk). Smith, who has cerebral palsy, which limits his ability to compete in other sports, said The Guardian, “I wouldn’t be a Paralympian without boccia.