The Paralympic Games were first held in Rome in 1960, six days after the closing ceremony of the Olympics. Four hundred athletes from 23 nations competed in eight sports: para-athletics, wheelchair basketball, swimming, table tennis, archery, wheelchair fencing, snooker, and dartchery (a unique combination of darts and archery).
Since its debut, the Paralympic Games have offered athletes with disabilities the opportunity to compete in Olympic-style events. Over the years, dozens of sports have been added to the competition, with each sport requiring specialized technology to meet the needs of the athletes.
From advanced running blade prosthetics to specialized wheelchairs, ITPro Today examined key Paralympic technology helping athletes train and compete.
Lightning-Fast Running Blades
Prosthetic running blades have enabled amputee runners to achieve results so remarkable that they’ve even sparked controversy, with some questioning whether prosthetics confer an advantage over traditional competitors.
One notable maker of running blades is the Japanese company Xiborg. Using biomechanical research, Xiborg prosthetics are designed with a focus on maximizing speed. Xiborg’s Genesis prosthetic, for example, features a plate spring made of carbon fiber-reinforced plastic, allowing the prosthetic to flex and extend in a powerful forward burst.
German runner Felix Streng took gold at the 2022 Tokyo Paralympic Games with a time of 10.76 in the Men’s 100m. Streng’s high-performance running blades are created by the German prosthetic company Ossur.
Ossur’s design process accounts for an athlete’s physical attributes, running style, and force. The running blades are curved at the base and compress upon impact, providing buoyancy and absorbing high levels of stress that would otherwise affect a runner’s knees, hips, and lower back. Ossur’s Cheetah Sports prosthetic line is notable for its ability to return 90% to 95% of energy, allowing the runner to use less oxygen compared to a conventional runner.
Looking ahead to the Paris Olympics in 2024, the mascot designs unveiled by the Olympics committee in November 2022 feature two Phrygian caps, one of which wears a running blade to symbolize Paralympians and promote an inclusive spirit for the upcoming games.
Attendees of the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games can expect to see cutting-edge running blade designs from companies like Xiborg, Ossur, and Ottobock.
The Paralympics prohibits swimmers from using prostheses in the games. Since swimming itself doesn’t require specific equipment, it’s often perceived as a low-tech sport. However, visually impaired swimmers rely on an aid called a “tapper.” Tappers are essentially assistants who stand at the pool’s end and warn the swimmers when they are approaching the wall. Tappers use long poles to tap swimmers during their approach. Without a tapper, swimmers could be at risk of serious head injuries.
In 2016, Samsung partnered with Cheil Worldwide Spain to develop the first-ever swim cap for visually impaired swimmers, the Blind Cap. The cap is paired with a coach- and tapper-controlled app that sends vibrations to the cap via Bluetooth. The vibrations serve as signals instructing swimmers when to turn or stop.
Despite this innovative technology, the Paralympic Federation currently doesn’t permit competitors to use the Blind Cap during official competitions.
Technological assistance has played an important role in the history of para-archery. Paralympic archers often require a range of assistive devices, including stools, elbow straps, prosthetic limbs, and various types of mechanical release triggers.
For archers missing an upper limb, a release brace is an important form of assistance. The brace is strapped to the competitor’s back, acting as a hinge between the bowstring and the bow’s stabilizer. The release brace provides the tension necessary to release the arrow, simulating the action of the arm pulling back the bowstring.
Release braces are often paired with modified trigger releases. The releases are activated in distinct ways – for example, some are triggered when the archer bites down on a mouth tab or small piece of fabric.
In the inaugural Paralympics, every competitor used a wheelchair. Today, with 28 Paralympic sports, athletes continue to rely on specialized sports wheelchairs. The chairs are tailored to meet the unique needs of each sport, such as badminton, basketball, rugby, and tennis, and differ significantly from standard wheelchairs.
Paralympians can achieve speeds of more than 40 kilometers per hour using just their arm power, narrowing the speed gap between Olympian sprinters and Paralympic wheelchair racers. While a sprinter may finish the 100-meter dash in 10 seconds, wheelchair racers can complete it in around 14 seconds.
Designing faster, sturdier, and more agile wheelchairs depends on the chair’s shape and the materials used in its production. For example, Ox Engineering, a Japanese wheelchair company, has developed a unique racing chair with three wheels, providing racers with enhanced stability and reduced vibration from the track’s surface. The chair’s oval-shaped wheels prevent contact with a racer’s arms. The wheels distribute weight evenly, minimizing the risk of tipping during a race.
What is required of an athlete’s wheelchair varies from sport to sport. While racers value light frames and speed above all, Paralympic basketball and rugby players benefit from designs that ensure stability, sharper turn radii, cushions, and agility. In basketball, caster wheels at the rear allow athletes to tip their chairs backward to gain height without the risk of falling. Velcro upholstery and straps also add security for players.
The Paralympics were established to give athletes with disabilities a national platform to showcase their talents. Since the first Paralympic Games, sports technology has revolutionized the ways athletes perform. Advancements in para-sports technology have become so remarkable that Paralympic athletes have narrowed the performance gaps with their Olympic counterparts.