Adaptive sports equipment runs the gamut from custom adaptation to unauthorized modification
Adaptive sports equipment runs the gamut from custom adaptation to unauthorized modification
People with disabilities always have to be creative if they want to take part in aspects of life that many take for granted. And that’s no different when it comes to sports. Yet over the past few years, the assistive technology industry has come to realize that people with disabilities also love to move and exercise. Since then, lots of adaptive equipment to accommodate special disabilities and sports has been developed, while the choices and leisure sector options have likewise become more multifaceted.
When talking about assisitve devices for sports, handbikes and sports wheelchairs come to mind first. Meanwhile, however, the offers on the auxiliary means market are just as varied as the sports that are practiced by people with disabilities.
Snowboarding, for example, is extremely difficult for people with prosthetic legs because the assistive technology is usually made for walking. Depending on the way you ride the snowboard, you need mobility of the ankle in all directions and the necessary stability in the joints when it counts. Now there are high-tech prosthetic legs that can do just that with shock absorbers to control jumps or the ride over stones and make activities more comfortable.
But you don’t always need high-tech gadgets. The best example of this is a sports wheelchair. At this point, there are custom models to play rugby, basketball or WCMX. In a conversation with REHACARE.com, several representatives of the abovementioned types of sports explain how these custom chairs differ from everyday wheelchairs.
Many innovations in the sports industry also materialize because para-sports have become increasingly professionalized and highlighted as evidenced by the past Paralympic Games. But even the years between Olympic competitions see a lot of action: Many sports now also offer an equivalent for people with disabilities. Whether it’s blind soccer, wheelchair rugby or para-snowboarding, which celebrated its Paralympic premiere in 2014 in Sochi – all of them feature official competitions at the national and international level at this point.
Materials, data, technology – Optimize what can be optimized
And since that's the case, assistive technology also takes center stage at sports because wherever athletes are unable to progress with training, things have to be optimized elsewhere to achieve top performances. In the cycling and racing world, wind tunnel testing seeks to optimize aerodynamics. Over in ski jumping, the suits, as well as the athlete’s weight and the right wax on the skis all play a key role. Professional swimming saw a ban on full-body suits - which were in use until 2010 - because they helped achieve faster and faster times. When these suits were first introduced at the 2008 Olympics, 23 out of 25 world records were set by swimmers who wore these suits. Swimmers who didn’t wear the suits didn’t stand a chance.
And speaking of chance: actually nothing is left to chance, even in sports that have little or nothing to do with materials research. Soccer, handball or other ball games provide a video analysis of opponents to prepare the athletes for anything that might come their way. In soccer, the shoes and balls are constantly being optimized to improve shooting and flight characteristics.
Of course, it is still always up to the athlete to achieve his/her personal best, though faith can also move mountains in the sports realm. For example, the use of compression garments notably has no proven impact on sports performance, though there is definitely a psychological effect. Athletes are more confident in their body because they support its function as much as they possibly can.
Markus Rehm sees himself as a prosthesis jumper and he understands why his achieved values should only be compared with those. Nevertheless, he would like to have joint competitions with athletes without disabilities.
"Technical doping" and the case of Markus Rehm
In times when data and materials are becoming increasingly important, athletes are essentially obligated to use these resources if they want to be successful. And then the question becomes whether or not athletes are subsequently still competing under fair conditions. There is a debate – or so it seems - over "technical doping" as it relates to para-sport. Oscar Pistorius attracted attention at the 2012 Olympics when the South African competed with two prosthetic legs and found himself center-stage of this very public debate. The runner, whose lower legs are amputated, brought his case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and won the right to start at the Games. The court ruled that there was no unfair advantage for Pistorius over able-bodied athletes.
Meanwhile, things turned out a bit differently over in Germany: Markus Rehm won the 2014 German Athletics Championships in the long jump. It should be noted that he competed against able-bodied athletes. And although he was allowed to keep his title, he was not permitted to defend it because it could not be ruled out that his prosthesis may have given him an unfair advantage over athletes with two physical ankle joints. Markus Rehm opted against the judicial path that Pistorius had taken. "That's not my path! I also have a responsibility. As long as this question has not been clearly settled, I think the competitions should be evaluated separately."
That being said, he still wanted an answer to this question. So the athlete, who represents the TSV Bayer Leverkusen, obtained the expert opinion of three respected and prestigious international institutes. Their finding: "The study concludes that not even scientists are able to state conclusively how a prosthetic device performs in the long jump." On the one hand, Rehm - and remember the study only refers to his performance – has a disadvantage during the approach run up because he is unable to pick up as much speed as other athletes can at that juncture. On the other hand, the man from Göppingen loses less speed during take-off. During his flight through the air, Rehm exhibits the same parameters as able-bodied athletes. So one might argue that the advantage during take-off compensates for the disadvantage before the take-off. "That's a theory. You can certainly argue this point to a degree. But it is very difficult to determine the precise and full extent of an advantage or disadvantage in this setting. Rehm says, “the scientists themselves are unable to quantify how much the disadvantage is truly offset by the advantage.”. And since that is the case, "I have proposed joint competitions, but maybe the better option is to evaluate them separately. That's probably the easiest and best solution for everyone. "
The athlete’s objective behind obtaining an expert opinion wasn’t the urge to compare himself to athletes without disabilities and show that he might even be better than them. Instead, Rehm wants to promote joint competitions between para-athletes and able-bodied athletes. "I mean, what’s to compare in this case? I am a jumper who uses a prosthetic device, which means I can only compare my performance to that of other jumpers wearing prosthetics. That's definitely the fairest way. Having said that, it is simply exciting for spectators to see someone with a disability jump so far. I wished the organizers of competitions would agree and feel the same way.” However, both national and international regulations would have to be adapted before joint competitions can be accepted and approved. So far, that hasn’t happened yet.
In alpine sports it's like in (car) racing: Every driver has basically the same vehicle and yet, for example, the seat is adapted to only one driver, just as the technicians try to adjust the vehicle perfectly to the track and his driving style together with him.
Unique disability, unique assistive technology
"Technical doping" is a challenging subject. Even though para-athletes are divided up in their sport based on their degree of disability to create the fairest possible conditions, the charge of "technical doping" is not entirely unjustified, as Kirsten Bruhn already told REHACARE.com back in 2015. "Not everyone shares the same auxiliary means and circumstances. To ensure one hundred percent fairness, all athletes would have to wear the same prosthesis and also jump with this prosthesis. After all, some people do not jump off using the prosthesis but jump with their actual leg."
There is actually no such thing as 100% fairness in para-sport because the athletes have unique disabilities and therefore need unique and personalized adaptive equipment. That’s something Alpine athlete Anna Schaffelhuber can attest to: "I think, in Alpine ski racing, you don’t have a perfect monoski, but the perfect adaptation. That's also why I don’t see where 'technical doping' is an issue in our sport. Everyone has such a unique disability, distinct style and preconditions to where it’s crucial to perfectly design and adapt the monoski to the unique circumstances of the athlete." In our REHACARE interview, Schaffelhuber and Andrea Eskau explain how unique adaptive equipment is in winter sports and describe its importance when it comes to the athlete’s performance.
Whether summer or winter, individual or team sports, everyone agrees that they feel comfortable with their adaptive equipment and that they must become one with their gear to deliver an outstanding performance. This applies more to professional sports than leisure sports. That being said, the increasing professionalization of sports like WCMX or the Paralympic winter sports and the subsequent development of lighter, better or brand-new adaptive sports equipment also greatly benefit recreational athletes.
Anne Hofmann (Translated by Elena O'Meara) REHACARE.com
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