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Technology enhances Paralympic athletes. Where will it stop?

Coaching disabled people? Your skill set may soon be changing as the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) recognises that it is stuggling to keep up with the ever developing technology to enhance the ability of disabled elite athletes.

The IPC has just closed its VISTA2013Conference in Bonn, Germany with the theme "Equipment and Technology in Paralympic Sports." Speaking at the conference were notable specialists in the area of Human Engineering, biomechanics and human movements.

This got me thinking about the advancement of technology and equipment to develop elite disabled athletes:

  • How far can science take amputees or wheelchair users before it is the technology that is driving the athlete and not their raw ability?
  • Will the more wealthy countries dominate the medal tables as they potentially have more money to develop ‘performance enhancing’ technology?
  • Does this mean, as with Oscar Pistorius, that more disabled athletes will be able to qualify and compete in non-disability sport competition.
  • What will this mean for classification?

Take for example, Formula 1. If there were no rules relating to the capping of engine modification the race would be won by the wealthiest team who could afford the best engineers and research & development staff. The driver would need to know how to drive but may not be the best driver on the track, but the car would be the fastest and most reliable.

Speaking at the conference, Ivo Van Hilvoorde, the assistant professor at the Faculty of Human Movement Sciences at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam said: "I believe the Paralympic Movement is at a crossroads where clear choices have to be made about the role and increasing dominance of technological innovation.

"What is needed is a clear conceptual and sport ethical framework for evaluating and grounding choices about the implications of new technology, its relation to sport immanent classifications and its relation to the changing definitions of disability."

He goes on to argue that by enabling disabled athletes to achieve more than their own ability allows through the use technology, the scientists are removing the over-arching goal that most sportsmen and women strive for – pushing their own bodies to the maximum to beat their opponents. An argument from a prominent colleague in disability sport even goes as far to liken greater advances in technology with doping in sport.

Brendan Burkett, an ex Paralympian swimmer and now professor in biomechanics at the University of the Sunshine Coast recognises:  "But we still need to keep the essence of the sport. We need to keep that while also improving the functionality of the sport. We don't want the sports to be inhibited by robots, though. We want them to always be controlled by the humans."

This debate will continue and become more contentious as developments in technology and materials advance. How will this affect your coaching over time? Will your knowledge have to get more mechanical, technological, biomechanical? Could this change the future of coaching disabled people?

For the full press releases from the event click on the following links:

The Role of Equipment in Paralympic Sport (IPC Press Release)

Paralympic Movement approaching a crossroads regarding technology (IPC press release)