They have all sorts of stories. Some have lived their whole lives with disabilities; some were in accidents that led to their disabilities. One thing they all have in common, however, is the potential to stand atop a podium and have a gold medal placed around their necks.
These are the Paralympians. Less well-known, perhaps, than those who compete in the Olympic games of the able-bodied, but just as courageous and dedicated to perfecting their physical performance as any of those athletes. But some can’t do it without a little nonbiological assistance, so we’re going to look closer at some of the prosthetic equipment they use. First, though, a history of the movement.
Athletic events for people with physical impairments have been hosted for more than a century, but on a smaller scale, unlike the Paralympics that occur today. Following World War II, huge numbers of veterans returned to their homes with grievous injuries. Beginning in England, Dr. Ludwig Guttmann started using sport as a means of rehabilitation. From there, athletics for the disabled grew to be a recreational activity, and, eventually, evolved into what we traditionally think of as competitive sport.
From the small competition Guttmann dubbed the Stoke Mandeville Games in 1948 (held in tandem with the London Olympics that took place that same year), the Paralympic movement expanded rapidly, and the first official summer games took place in Rome in 1960. They featured 400 athletes proudly representing 23 nations [source: International Paralympic Committee]. In 1976, the inaugural winter games took place, and in 1988, the Paralympics started being hosted by the same city hosting the Olympics.
As of 2012, the Paralympics include participants with one of 10 disabilities [source: International Paralympic Committee]:
- Limb deficiency
- Impaired passive range of motion
- Impaired muscle power
- Differences in leg length
- Small stature
- Vision impairment
- Intellectual impairment
- Hypertonia, or a marked increase in muscle tension and a decreased ability to stretch that muscle
- Ataxia, or inability to direct voluntary muscle movements
- [b}Athetosis, or mild to severe motor dysfunction
Before competitions kick off, Paralympic organizers determine which athletes are eligible for which events and group them by the extent of their specific impairments. Athletes who are eligible to compete in basketball and tennis, for example, include people who use a wheelchair or those who have had an amputation. Athletes who are visually disabled are the only segment allowed to compete at goalball, a popular Paralympic sport that’s sort of a cross between soccer and bowling.
The Panoply of Prosthetics
Paralympians who are amputees have a wide range of prosthetics available to them, and athletes of different sports make use of different ones. Of them, some are passive function, some are mechanical and some are myoelectric. All have strengths and weaknesses.
When it comes to prosthetics for arms, passive function prosthetics are the most durable and versatile. They tend to look a lot like the body parts they replace, and they have limited functionality. They may be ideal for athletes who are participating in extremely active sports, like hockey. Mechanical prosthetics use cables, pulleys and sometimes batteries to operate, and are a tad more delicate but also more functional. Myoelectric ones -- which serve best when an athlete must perform in a sport that is light duty but needs particular precision -- rely on a person’s muscles and an electric motor to coordinate prosthetic movement. Myoelectric prosthetics are state-of-the-art devices.
The field of lower-limb prosthetics isn’t short on options, either. One popular line in sporting competitions is the family of Ossur Flex-Foots. Van Phillips, an amputee, and Dale Abildskov, an aerospace engineer, teamed up to revolutionize the field back in the 1980s. For their initial model, they used carbon fiber to create an L-shaped device. This common material in the space industry is both very strong and very flexible -- ideal for the punishing treatment meted out by world-class athletes on their equipment. Nowadays, more than 90 percent of athletes with lower-limb amputations wear a Flex-Foot while training and competing [source: Cheskin].
Other lower limb prosthetics are customized for different sports and athletes. One company makes a version that’s designed for athletes with a heavier build; it features different attachments that provide varying levels of resistance. Another offers an artificial limb that can be mounted directly on a ski, which is an advantage for skiers -- the setup is lighter and easier to maneuver.
Speaking of customization, swimmers can use a prosthesis that resembles a wing in order to reduce drag in the water. It can be adjusted for maximum effectiveness, depending on what stroke the swimmer is competing in.
The diversity of available prosthetics has led to some interesting debates concerning the appropriateness of their usage.
The Controversial Runner
Oscar Pistorius, a South African runner who was born without fibulas (one of the two bones in calves), was less than a year old when his legs were amputated below the knees. Six months later, he was walking. Now he's tearing up the track at the Paralympics and, in 2012, he headed to his first Olympics as a member of the 4x400-meter relay team.
Nicknamed Blade Runner, he has also ignited an international controversy due to the prosthetics he wears. Some have claimed his J-shaped, carbon-fiber calves give him an unfair advantage over other athletes. The Flex-Foot Cheetahs, which Paralympic athletes have been sprinting on since the late 1990s, are certainly speedy, but when Pistorius runs on them, it's like Hermes has hit the track. At speeds of 45.07 seconds in the 400-meter, it's hard to argue that his artificial attachments don't serve him well. But are they unfair to the competition?
The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) thought so. That's the organization that has the top say in everything track-and-field-related. In 2008, the association ruled that Pistorius was not allowed to compete against able-bodied runners. Pistorius, not one to take anything lying down -- or moving at less than lighting speeds, for that matter -- appealed the decision. His lawyer and a bevy of experts argued in his favor at the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which repealed the ruling. The court has the final say in all matters of sporting competitions.
Pistorius runs differently from other world-class athletes not equipped with prosthetics. Their feet touch the ground for a tenth of a second or less. Designed the way they are, Pistorius' Cheetahs are on the track longer, so he has to compensate with superior hip strength and faster limb movement. He also must immediately come to an upright position; athletes without amputations start low to build up initial speed [source: Sokolove].
But some still think Pistorius enjoys special advantages. In fact, one of the researchers who studied Pistorius' running style before his appeal believes that's the case. For one, Pistorius' carbon-fiber substitutes are much lighter than the lower limbs of able-bodied athletes. His Cheetahs weigh about 5.4 pounds (2.4 kilograms). Athletes with intact calves must deal with an extra 12.6 pounds (5.7 kilograms) on average. That means he can reposition his legs about 15 percent quicker than some of the fastest male sprinters in history [source: Sokolove].
Many, however, feel that such a viewpoint is nonsense. They see Pistorius, wobbly on his Cheetahs when not flying down the track, and have nothing but admiration for what he has accomplished.
I knew little about the Paralympics before I began my research. As I started to learn more about the games, I was extremely interested in the additional attention to detail that both Paralympic organizers and athletes put forth to ensure an even playing field for all those with disabilities. I also found Pistorius' story very riveting. That he, even with some whizbang prosthetics, wasn't allowed to compete against able-bodied athletes was pretty surprising to me. Regardless, I wish all Paralympians good luck in the games!
- Amputee Coalition Web site. (June 22, 2012) http://www.amputee-coalition.org/limb-loss-resource-center/publications/inmotion/
- Cheskin, Mel. "Paralympic Athletes, Equipped for Success." Amputee Coalition Web site. Sept. 18, 2008. (June 22, 2012) http://www.amputee-coalition.org/inmotion/may_jun_04/paralympic.html
- The International Paralympic Committee. "Classification." (June 22, 2012) http://www.paralympic.org/Classification/Introduction
- The International Paralympic Committee. "Guidelines for Reporting on Persons with Disabilities." (June 22, 2012) http://www.paralympic.org/sites/default/files/document/120209105414322_2012_02+Reporting+Guidlines.pdf
- The International Paralympic Committee. "History of the Movement." (June 22, 2012) http://www.paralympic.org/TheIPC/HWA/HistoryoftheMovement
- London 2012. (May 4, 2012.) http://www.london2012.com/
- OscarPistorius.com (June 22, 2012) http://www.oscarpistorius.com/
- Sokolove, Michael. "The Fast Life of Oscar Pistorius." The New York Times. Jan. 18, 2012. (June 22, 2012) http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/22/magazine/oscar-pistorius.html?_r=1
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