Adaptive Sports – What if?

Dylan Alcott and Novak Djokovic playing wheelchair tennis

 

Imagine training your whole life to compete in one event and then being told you are not allowed to participate.

This is what happened to Blake Leeper a US athlete who was training for the 2020 US summer games. Leeper is a double amputee athlete who utilises two running prosthetics which are often referred to as running blades. Leeper was told he was not able to compete in the summer games against able bodied athletes due to his running blades providing him with an unfair advantage. 

This is not the first time an adaptive athlete has been told they are not able to compete. Following his success at the 2004 Paralympics Oscar Pistorius was the first adaptive runner to compete against able bodied athletes. However in 2008 the World Athletics implemented rule 144.2 which prohibited the use of any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels or any other element which provides the user with an advantage over another athlete not using such device. 

Adaptive athletes running on blades in paraolympics

This ruling was based on research which found that running blades could provide an athlete with an advantage, however it has since been proven that the study which produced this research was poorly made and no follow up was completed. Future studies have actually proven this is not the case and that running prostheses do not provide runners with an unfair advantage, when all elements are taken into consideration including metabolic function and running style.

Pistorius fought this ruling and in 2012 became the first adaptive athlete to run in the Olympic games. Blake Leeper is currently fighting to have his ban lifted and to be allowed to complete against able bodied athletes just as Pistorius did.

Double amputee wearing running blades

Would Usain Bolt still be the fastest runner in the world if he used a running blade?

The 100m sprint world record is held by Usain Bolt in a time of 9.58 seconds. In comparison the fastest Paralympic 100m sprint time is held by Jayson Smyth who runs it in a time of 10.36. Jayson runs in the T13 category for track events as he is partially blind. Most Paralympic events have categories in which the competitors race depending on their impairment and the functional disadvantage this places them at in their sport. 

Johnnie Peacock is a sprinter from the United Kingdom who runs in the T44 category. Johnnie has a right leg amputation below the knee. Johnnie’s fastest time for the 100m is 10.75. The differences in these runners times are relatively small when you look at the full picture.  

Imagine if there was an exoskeleton that could be used by Jonnie Peacock! Would he run faster than Usain Bolt? What if Jayson Smyth had full vision maybe he would beat Usain Bolt?

Paralympic athletes can run at the same speed as able bodied athletes with prosthetic running blades using 25% less oxygen due to the prosthetic energy return. Running blades today are made form carbon fibre and return three times as much energy as the human ankle. Current studies have found that these running blades do not provide athletes with an unfair advantage due to other factors such as cardiovascular fitness and the inability of running blades to store energy as the human leg does. Engineers are working everyday to continue to improve running blades and who knows what may be possible in the future as technology continues to advance.

Johnnie Peacock competing at the 2017 World Para Athletics championships 

Speedo LZR full body suit

Swimming has been at the forefront of the assistive technology debate in the past in regards to racing suits and whether or not they provide participants with an advantage. The speedo LZR full body swim suit which was commonly seen at the 2008 Olympic games, made famous by Micheal Phelps was banned in 2010, after FINA the governing body of swimming announced they provided an unfair advantage by cutting down on fatigue and giving swimmers more buoyancy and speed. 

Currently there are prosthetic limbs which can be used in the water however the technology does not allow for diving in or exiting the pool and they may actually slow an elite swimmer down. Bionic limbs for use in the water are also being developed. The difference between prosthetics and bionics is that a person can control a bionic limb just as they would a regular limb using their brain. This is possible through computers and sensors in the bionics which detect the signals from the brain for muscle movement. With the rate that bionic limbs are developing today they may soon be able to outperform regular limbs. 

 

Double leg amputee wearing bionic limbs

 

If Ellie Cole was able to swim with a bionic leg would she be faster than Cate Campbell or Sarah Sjostrom

Sarah Sjostrom is the fastest women’s 50m freestyler in the world, holding the world record time of 23.67. In comparison Cate Campbell is the fastest women’s 50m freestyler on the Australian Olympic team and has a time of 23.78. Her team mate Ellie Cole won silver at the 2016 Paralympic game and swims the 50m freestyle in a time of 29.13 seconds. Ellie swims in the S9 category in Paralympic swimming as she has one leg which is amputated above the knee. 

When Ellie was three years old she had her right leg amputated due to a sarcoma, a life threatening cancer behind her right knee. She began swimming lessons as part of her rehabilitation and fell in love with the sport. Ellie made her first Paralympic games in 2008 at the age of 17 winning a silver and a bronze, and from there has continued her success winning gold at both the 2012 and 2016 Paralympics. 

With the advances in technology we are seeing today who knows what could be possible in the future. If there is a bionic limb which could be used in the pool just as a regular limb would this piece of technology be considered an unfair advantage?  Or could we see adaptive swimmers utilising this technology and keeping up with or beating some of the fastest swimmers in the world?

Ellie Cole swimming the 50m freestyle at the 2016 Paralympics 

Dylan Alcott is a well known Australian wheelchair basketball and tennis player, Dylan was born with a tumour wrapped around his spinal cord, which was successfully removed when he was five weeks old, however due to the underdevelopment of his spinal cord Dylan was unable to functionally use his legs and was left a paraplegic. 

From an early age Dylan participated in many sports but his real love was basketball and in 2008 at the age of 17 he got the chance to represent his country at the Paralympics in the Australian wheelchair basketball team. Australia won gold at the 2008 Paralympics and to this day Alcott remains the youngest male wheelchair basketball player to win gold at the Paralympics. 

 

Dylan Alcott Playing basketball at the 2008 Paralympics
Dylan Alcott playing basketball at the 2008 Paralympics

 

After coming in second place at the 2012 Paralympics and taking home the silver medal Alcott shifted his focus from basketball to tennis. 

In 2015 he took home the Australian Open title and in 2016 the gold in the doubles and single events at the Rio Paralympics. Since then he has gone onto win the 2017, 2018 and 2019 Australian Open Wheelchair Tennis championships. Dylan is a huge advocate for people with disabilities promoting the message that “anything is possible” if you set your mind to it and work hard enough. 

One of the greatest able bodied tennis players in the world is Novak Djokovic. He has 17 grand slam titles to his name and has broken numerous records over the course of his career, he has even tried his hand at wheelchair tennis on the occasion.

Dylan Alcott competing in wheelchair tennis at the 2016 Paralympics

Who would win a game of wheelchair tennis, Dylan Alcott or Novak Djokovic? 

When playing tennis in a wheelchair it is essential to keep moving and turning the entire time to ensure that you are able to get to the ball and it takes an expert wheelchair user to be able to do this. Tennis wheelchairs are designed to be light weight and usually made from aluminium or titanium to ensure that they are quick and manoeuvrable. They have steep angled wheels which assist with this manoeuvrability and turning. They also have one smaller wheel at the back and two at the front, these are referred to as castors and they ensure stability making sure the chair does not tip when the player is moving around the court. As you could imagine it takes a lot of practice to get the hang of using this highly specialised chair.  

Djokovic and Alcott competing in wheelchair tennis

Learning about all these adaptive sports and the athletes who train so hard to be at the top of their game has been truly inspirational to me as an Occupational Therapy student. I think the message they leave will inspire people all across the world with all different types of disabilities to try their hand at sports. I believe with the continual development of all these new types of assistive technology and the incredible athletes we see today that the future of adaptive sports is going to be incredible. Who knows what could be possible. 

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