The Paralympic Games officially began in Rome in 1960, and on September 7, over 4000 athletes from 176 countries will converge on Rio de Janeiro to compete in 23 sports during this year's Summer games. Here’s a closer look at some of the adaptive sports equipment and assistive technology that will be utilized at the 15th Paralympics.
1. RACE CHAIRS
One of the newest players in designing high-tech assistive equipment is BMW, which recently unveiled a carbon-fiber racing chair for Team USA Paralympians (above) that will be used in track events like the 100-meters and the marathon. BMW started with 3D scans of the athletes and their chairs, which were then analyzed for performance and improved on: These new chairs have a minimum profile to control aerodynamics and were given a stiffer chassis to stabilize the wheels. BMW also custom-made racing gloves for each athlete that will hold up to the stresses of punching the wheels. Athletes typically make their own gloves with Thermoplastic pellets, tape, and glue.
2. RUNNING BLADES
First developed by engineer and inventor Van Phillips as the Flex-Foot, prosthetic running blades are made from carbon fiber that stores and releases energy with each step. The prosthesis systems are used by transfemoral (above knee) and transtibial (below knee) amputees and can include rotating knee joints, waterproofing, a metal spike pad, and a curved shape for greater flexibility and a more natural running gait.
Invented by Hanz Lorenzen and Sett Reindle as a rehabilitative game for visually impaired World War II vets, goalball is played by two teams of three athletes who must roll a ball into their opponents’ goal. Because the athletes are visually impaired and wear blindfolds, the ball is imbedded with a bell to signal its whereabouts to competitors, who attempt to block the ball from landing in their goal. A similar concept is used in Beep Baseball, but the ball and bases contain a beeping mechanism, originally designed for the Princess telephone, to indicate location to players.
Recumbent handcycles will feature in both road racing and time trials at the Rio Games after debuting in Athens in 2004. The hand-powered roadsters feature either reclining or straight/forward leaning trunk-power seating arrangements, which requires greater abdominal control as the entire torso is utilized in every stroke. The fork steer, most popular with athletes who have, for example, both low- and high-level injuries to the spinal cord, operates with a traditional frame and an independent tuning fork, while cycles with lean steer (or lean-to-steer) have an upper frame that swivels above the lower frame and requires the driver to lean the bike into turns. Lean steer is typically used by riders with lower level injuries.
5. BOCCIA RAMPS
The simple game of boccia (which is similar to bocce) was introduced at the 1984 Paralympics in New York and was originally limited to athletes with cerebral palsy. There are currently four classifications for competing athletes; those in the BC3 class are permitted to use special ramps that can propel the ball onto the court as close to the jack as possible.
6. SAILING “SIP AND PUFF” STEERING
Australian Daniel Fitzgibbon won a gold medal at the 2012 Paralympics in London with partner Liesl Tesch in the two-person keelboat class. Fitzgibbon is a quadriplegic, but he is able to steer the vessel with a “sip and puff” system. Sitting in a custom-made, carbon-fiber seat, the 40-year-old mans the helm of the SKUD 18 keelboat through the use of a special straw that allows him to cant his seat from side to side while staying vertical. (As he explained to an Australian interviewer in 2012, “I suck on the tube and it cants one way, I blow and it cants the other way.”) The sip and puff system is used by many wheelchair users and has multiple interfaces and applications.
7. ARCHERY RELEASE AIDS
American archer Matt Stutzman, a 2012 silver medalist, is capable of shooting with just his feet, his mouth, and a release aid with a trigger that is attached to a belt around his upper chest. Athletes can also use gun rests, bow stringers, slings, and adaptive prosthetics. At the original version of the Paralympics, held just outside of London in 1948 (and then known as the Stoke-Mandeville Games for the Paralyzed), 16 athletes competed in archery, the only sport featured that year.