Technology has permeated the world of sports. Runners’ shoes, clothing, even the tracks they run on are optimized to make them perform better. Swimmers have their suits custom-designed to help them cut through the water like a shark. Various pieces of equipment, from vault poles to bobsleds are increasingly on the cutting-edge of science and engineering. This is particularly true, of course, for sports featured in the upcoming Paralympics set to begin soon in Sochi, Russia. And just as in the recently completed Olympic games, while technology may give some an edge, in the end it’s the hard work and skill of the athletes that will determine who wins the medals.
In all likelihood, carbon fiber will be the tech star of the 2014 Paralympics. Carbon fiber used in making athlete’s tools will be “lighter, stiffer and more form-fitted to the user,” said University of Pittsburgh professor Rory Cooper, FISA & Paralyzed Veterans of America Chair. The U.S. cross-country skiers, for example, will compete in a ”kneeling bucket system that’s on a carbon fiber ski,” he said.
Pre-impregnated carbon fiber materials or high tension strings first appeared in the 2012 Summer Paralympics. But Cooper says they will become more widespread as prices drop and computerized design tools become more readily available.
The catch is not all athletes can afford to be on technology’s cutting edge. And that may give an advantage to those who are better equipped.
“The technology will not be on a level playing field,” said Cooper. “It’s never on a level playing field in the Olympics, by the way, either. And the technology plays a more important role in many of the Paralympic sports. And the reason it is not going to be a … level playing field is because not all countries in the world have access to these technologies or can afford to use those technologies.”
How fair is that?
Cooper’s answer is “it’s only fair within the limitations of the rules.” And there are rules, regulations and inspections regarding the equipment used in the games. But he says there have been discussions at the international paralympic level as to whether there should be a greater standardization of technology in Olympic games, such as the pole vault.
“If I live in a low-income country, then I can buy a good pole vault pole. But I am going to buy a … standard pole vault pole,” he said. “In other words, something that a company manufactures and sells to anybody. And it might match my weight but it’s probably going to be, you know, for somebody a little bit heavier or a little bit lighter, optimal.”
An athlete coming from a wealthy country, however, “might have access to a … custom-made pole vault pole made exactly for me, my weight, my strength, my characteristics.”
A case in point is the U.S. bobsled team, which competed in the recent Winter Olympics with a custom, high-tech bobsled designed and made by BMW USA. Cooper notes that the U.S. team played the Jamaicans, who bought “somebody’s 2010 used bobsled.”
So who won? “Actually the Russians won,” said Cooper. “But the U.S. beat Jamaica considerably. The Russians had a custom-made bobsled as well.”
In the Paralympics, the role of technology is “more pronounced because the technology helps to compensate for a physical or sensory impairment,” said Cooper.
At the same time, the athlete is “not allowed any motors or power systems or anything that adds energy to the system. So all of the energy, all of the power has to come from the athlete,” he said.
As does the determination and the sheer grit of paralympians. Whatever the technology, Cooper says they train just as hard and perform at levels as amazing as their Olympic counterparts. “It’s actually a little-known fact – statistically; it is more difficult to qualify for the Paralympics than the Olympics.”
They “are in every way equal to the Olympics,” he said.