Paralympians go for gold in London 2012

Wheelchair racing, swimming, wheelchair basketball and runner Richard Whitehead © Getty Images

It is day five of the Paralympics, and the medals are stacking up. This year, new technology and investment means athletes are faster and stronger than ever. What is the secret to this success?

Deep in the heart of the Olympic village, a hi-tech workshop is buzzing with action. For the next week, 80 technicians will be hard at work there, welding, repairing, and sawing.

Without these engineers and their cutting-edge tools, the Paralympics would be impossible. Their job is to fine-tune and maintain the legs, arms and wheels of thousands of athletes competing in the games.

Technology is already a game-changer in sport, and for disabled athletes it is even more important. For a wheelchair basketball team easy-to-manoeuvre chairs make a medal-winning difference. Racing wheelchairs are perfectly streamlined, and prosthetics define the sprinting style of runners like Richard Whitehead .

By competing alongside able-bodied athletes in the Olympics, double amputee Oscar Pistorius has made his state-of-the-art ‘cheetah’ running blades famous. But the world-beating athlete has not done it alone: behind his success is a thriving industry, that pours millions of pounds into new technology.

Great equipment is not the only thing a Paralympian needs. All sportspeople require training facilities and coaching, which come at a cost. And before breaking into sport, disabled people may need help in their day-to-day life, too. In Britain, government funding for mobility scooters, stairlifts and even taxis is a lifeline; without it as a foundation, many Paralympians say, an athletic career would be impossible.

Support like this, of course, has not always been available. In the 1940s, many paralysed soldiers were left, quite literally, to rot and die; few had the chance to lead a fulfilling life. All that was changed by one man: Dr Ludwig Guttman, a doctor who arrived at Stoke Mandeville, a hospital for spinal injuries, just after WWII.

With a radical programme of work and therapy, Guttman helped paralysed men build confidence, develop skills and take part in sport – raising the expectations of opportunities for disabled people. And when, in 1948, he held an archery competition with a handful of his patients, he set in motion a Paralympic movement – that resulted in the global competition we enjoy today.

Team effort

Some think this highlights an important reality of the Paralympics. Every medal in these games, they say, is the result of advanced technology, investment, and decades of work toward equal opportunities. When we applaud Paralympic successes, we are not applauding the athletes, but the society that put them where they are.

Others disagree: the most important thing, they argue, is the talent and graft of the athletes themselves. By letting society take the credit, we forget what the Paralympics are really about: the achievements of truly exceptional individuals.

You Decide

  1. What is more important in sport – the performance of an individual athlete, or the behind the scenes contributions of thousands of people?
  2. Do you think your country does enough to support its disabled citizens?

Activities

  1. Pick one piece of technology used in the Paralympic games. Write a profile of the technology, including diagrams and information about how it works and is used.
  2. In groups, come up with three clear ideas about what your school could do to promote disabled sport. Pick one, and ‘pitch’ it to a teacher.

Some People Say...

“All of us have made the Paralympics happen.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Does this make it harder to get Paralympic sport start?
Yes, especially for developing nations. This year, Malawi and Botswana had to withdraw athletes from the competition at the last minute; they couldn’t cover the cost of visiting London.
Will the games mean support for disabled people might increase?
Not in every way. Britain’s Coalition government is in the process of reforming disability allowance, to save money and encourage people to work. The reforms are highly controversial. Everyone who is currently claiming disability benefits will be reassessed – and if they are deemed ‘fit to work’, they will have their money taken away. Around 300,000 people or more could lose their benefits. Disability rights groups have campaigned hard against these changes.

Word Watch

Already a game-changer
Technological advances have made a huge difference to the achievements of many sportspeople. The futuristic, black-wheeled bikes used in this year’s Olympics made an enormous contribution to Team GB’s medal haul, for example – to the extent that French cycling teams claimed the British had an unfair engineering advantage.
Rot and die
In the past, treatment for spinal injuries often involved confining the patient to a full-body cast – and not much else. Most doctors believed that it was impossible to treat paralysed patients, and during the First World War 95% of soldiers with spinal injuries died within two weeks of being hurt. Most did not die from their injuries, but as a result of infections they developed during the patchy and insufficient treatment.
Richard Whitehead
Originally a marathon runner, Whitehead won gold in the 200m in his category in London 2012. He is an above-the-knee amputee, and his blades mean he starts off slowly – but accelerates to a phenomenal speed after a stretch of track.
‘Cheetah’ running blades
Pistorius’ prosthetics, made of over eighty layers of carbon fibre, are designed with a ‘spring’ mechanism that re-uses energy as the leg pushes up from the ground. It returns 90% of the energy it stores, compared to 250% for a real leg.