Technology enables athletes in an already unfair competition

Senior reporter

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.