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Technology enables athletes in an already unfair competition

The success of British athletes like Jonnie Peacock and David Weir at this year’s Paralympic Games will go a long way in raising the profile of disability sport in the UK. And the appearance of double amputee Oscar Pistorius in the Olympics has already boosted the prominence of disabled athletes with audiences around the world (although calling them “disabled” seems increasingly ridiculous given their achievements).

But with this increased focus comes renewed scrutiny of the technology these athletes use to compete, raising the question of whether it enables or enhances their abilities. Pistorius’s claim that the length of the prosthetic blades worn by his opponent Alan Oliveira gave him an advantage, after successfully arguing he himself had no such advantage over able-bodied athletes, has only clouded the issue.

When The Engineer reported earlier this week on a secret new racing wheelchair being developed by UK Sport, some readers commented that there would never be a fair competition unless all participants used the same technology. UK Sport has spent £700,000 on science and engineering research for Paralympic sport over the last four years, developing new technologies and techniques that could help Britain’s athletes in their goal of becoming the best in the world. While Paralympic rules state all equipment must be commercially available, the reality is that it would cost huge amounts of money for other countries to give their athletes the same kit, money that just isn’t available in many countries.

The organisation’s head of research and innovation argues that the role of its technology programme is to remove barriers for athletes who are already within reach of a medal – not to build superhuman competitors. ‘It’s bespoke personalisation for that athlete to enable them to maximise their personal capability,’ he told The Engineer at the Royal Academy of Engineering’s conference on sports innovation this week. ‘It’s ensuring that their equipment is not the limiting factor so they can express their physical, physiological capability.

‘It’s our job to ensure athletes are given the best opportunities to succeed. So in some respects we’d be negligent if we weren’t looking for opportunities that are well within the rules and regulations to ensure they can do that. In terms of what we do, we are only looking at marginal gains. Fundamentally you need an athlete who is highly motivated, wants to be the best in the world and puts in all that time and effort, that probably allows science and engineering to then look for those margins.’

The problem is when a technological advance comes along that makes more than a marginal difference to competitors. In the last fifteen years we’ve seen carbon fibre blades transform the image of the Paralympics and fundamentally shift the perception of what these athletes can do. Now we’re seeing the emergence of training prostheses with microprocessors that control the movement of the limb to make it move more like a natural body part and so make it easier for the athlete to use.

Moments like this are what have helped disability sport to evolve and gain public attention, altering our ideas about what disabled people can do. Drawer compares it to the emergence of someone like Usain Bolt, who has redefined our expectations of how fast the top sprinters could and should run.

But while you could argue microprocessors simply replace the capability that the athlete would otherwise have if they were fully able-bodied, the step-change they represent could very easily be seen as an unfair advantage against those competitors who couldn’t afford them. It’s also possible to see how computer-controlled prostheses could go further and enhance athletic abilities. This highlights how important it is that the technology be studied and appropriate regulations drawn up before athletes are allowed to use it in competition.

Ultimately, the reality of modern sport means there isn’t a level playing field in international competition. Sometimes a competitor will defy the odds based only on their determination, effort and natural talent, things that all successful athletes do need. Most international champions, however, come from countries where their sport has the money, facilities, competition structure and cultural attention needed to propel them to the top levels. These things don’t determine winners but they’re usually necessary.

As technology becomes an increasing focus of sports bodies, it too is entering this category. But with Paralympic sport it has a particularly special role. It’s what makes these games possible in the first place. It’s what gives the likes of David Weir and Oscar Pistorius the opportunity to fulfil their potential, helping the sport to grow and evolve and exciting audiences around the world as it does.

Readers' comments (3)

  • First thing to say is that the Paralympics is NOT the Olympics and never can be (or should be) - The Olympics is about being the best, the Paralympics is about being the best YOU can be. Which might be viewed as a harder achievement.

    Both the press, public (driven by the later) and the some of the Athletes seem to think it's about medal hauls, it's not, and to be honest shame on them, it's about taking part.

    The advantage of the Paralympics technology is its pushing the limits on how far disabled people can be helped, a bit like Formula 1 technology improving the lot of the average motorist.

    To counter that there are a lot of disabled people who must be frustrated when they see £700 million put into research for 'disabled' athletes when they have a problem getting basic equipment and help.

    The Paralympics is looking more about the 'have and have not's' than anything else.
    The corollary - we are treating disabled people like the rest of society - unfairly!

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  • I think a lot of Paralympic athletes would disagree that their event is about taking part rather than winning.

    It's not quite like F1, where the technology is much more important and regulations force engineers to develop it in very specific way. The regulations of disability sport mean technology can be far less sophisticated than that used by disabled people outside of competition eg microprocessor-controlled joints.

    Also it's £700,000, not £700m.

  • Moving further in the (probably not too distant) future, and just a little whimsical, will exoskeletal equipment be considered acceptable? The mind boggles at javelin throwers clearing stadium walls and 1500 mtr runners winning in sub-minute times....

    Motor Rallying had a similar cost/performance issue and had to take action, so perhaps only equipment that costs below a certain sum, or has been produced in many thousands may be used.

    Whatever the solution is, it is clear to me and I think many others, that we are reaching a tipping point regarding the use of technology in sport.

    I don't envy whoever is given the task of ensuring equitable competition in both forms of the Olympics..

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  • If you are capable of developing the technology why be afraid to use it? If other countries are unable to afford it, then should they even be entering these competitions? This type of development should hopefully filter down to help ordinary disabled people to live life easier. The time to stop is when disabled athletes can out perform the top able bodied athletes, then it will become ridiculus.

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