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Paralympians eye 'bionic' future

Equipment used by Paralympians has seen remarkable improvements in recent years, enabling them to close the gap on their able-bodied counterparts.

Athletic wheelchairs are made from titanium and are much more maneuverable than traditional models.
Athletic wheelchairs are made from titanium and are much more maneuverable than traditional models.

BEIJING // Equipment used by Paralympians has seen remarkable improvements in recent years, enabling them to close the gap on their able-bodied counterparts and even look forward to a "bionic" future. Paralympic sports have been transformed by the evolution of the wheelchair, with different models specially adapted to each discipline. Endowed with better ergonomics than traditional models, the "sport" wheelchairs being used in the Beijing Games are made out of titanium or aircraft aluminium, and consequently they are much lighter and more manoeuvrable.

For tennis, two large slanted wheels with casters at the front allow powerful starts and pivots, opening the way for a more aggressive and faster game. Since the end of the 1990s, developments in the handbike - a three-wheeled bike propelled by hand - have allowed disabled cyclists to attain speeds of up to 70 kph on descent. And while expensive and adapted for the requirements of top-level sport, the improvements have also led to lighter and more functional basic models for everyday use.

But the major breakthrough in the past 15 years has undoubtedly been in improvements to prosthetic limbs, thrown into the spotlight by the carbon fibre blades worn by Oscar Pistorius, the South African double amputee sprinter. "Blade Runner", as Pistorius is known, sought to qualify for the Beijing Olympics after winning the silver medal against able- bodied competitors in the 400m at the 2007 South African National Championships.

He failed to make the South African team, but his quest, which is still ongoing as he looks to compete in the London 2012 Olympics, shows how far technology has come in helping to put disabled athletes on an equal-playing field with their able-bodied competitors. The company behind the J-shaped carbon-composite sprinting foot, Icelandic firm Ossur, says the blades are designed to store and release energy, mimicking the natural reaction of the anatomical foot and ankle joint.

In January, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) banned Pistorius from competing against able-bodied runners on the grounds that his prostheses gave him a technical advantage. But the Court of Arbitration for Sport in May said that the evidence was inconclusive and overturned the IAAF's findings, a move welcomed by Ossur, which insists it is the athletes and not technology that make champions.

Jonas Merian, Ossur's technical manager for China, said the technology for prosthetics in track and field had not changed significantly in recent years. "Prosthetic feet are undergoing some improvements, but they are actually more or less the same as when we developed them in the beginning. Athletes are getting better and learning how to use them better," Mr Merian said. Eric Laboute, a doctor with the French Paralympic team, agreed that Paralympic technology was not yet at the stage where a "bionic" athlete could exceed the performances of able-bodied athletes.

"This is not unimaginable but for the moment, [prosthetics] remain a handicap," Dr Laboute said. Pointing to a future in which electronic knees will be controlled by microprocessors, Dr Laboute said further problems similar to the Pistorius controversy were inevitable. "It will be necessary to raise the question of putting limits on what can be done," Dr Laboute said. "[Otherwise] will the able- bodied and disabled athletes be equal from the starting line?"

* AFP