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Topic Title: Paralympic Technology article in E&T
Topic Summary: Is technology taking athletes too far, too high, too fast?
Created On: 04 September 2012 04:05 PM
Status: Post and Reply
Related E&T article: Paralympic technology
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 04 September 2012 04:05 PM
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dickonross

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We were lucky enough to see Oscar Pistorius break a world record in the Olympic Park stadium on Saturday evening and it was an experience the children won't ever forget. I think the technology makes many Paralympic events faster, more extraordinary and more exciting.


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Dickon Ross
Editor-in-Chief
The Institution of Engineering and Technology
 05 September 2012 10:55 AM
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abigrogan

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I think this is an interesting debate, whether Paralympians have an advantage over able bodied athletes because their prosthetics are believed to be superior to human bone and tissue, essentially making them part human, part machine.

Richard Hirons is a clinical specialist at Ossur, the company that made Pistorius' blades. We interviewed him for our feature on paralympic technology in our most recent issue. He says that primarily the only role of a prosthesis, sporting or otherwise, is to minimise the disadvantage, which some critics seem to forget is as severe as it is. Amputee athletes are missing the majority of a limb, which causes all sorts of balance, pressure and friction issues on the remaining stump. All these factors combined mean that it is debatable that blade-wearing athletes are currently at more of a sporting advantage than a regular athlete.
 
"I don't think the question of disadvantage or advantage is itself is right. We only see the likes of Oscar Pistorious on the start line, we don't see him having a shower, getting down stairs, walking down ramps, carrying his belongings to the track, we don't see him navigating his way around the Olympic village and as an amputee those things are quite difficult. The training regimes for these athletes, such as pressing weights on parts of the body that are not designed for weights, we don't even think about.

Then when it comes to the start line; is it raining, is it windy, it is the 200m or 400m with various bends? These are all sorts of factors that unless you're an amputee and you have to wear prosthesis, are overlooked. These are the disadvantages of wearing a prosthesis, which are rebalanced rather than giving an extra advantage. It's not just about running down the track.
 
It is a compromise wearing prosthesis. Whether it's over the same distance or same time it takes extra effort, extra energy for those people than it would take your or I to do something.
 
Inherently, prosthesis is not a natural thing to be wearing; they fit on parts of your body that are not biologically designed to take weight. The person wearing it wants higher demand from it that our muscles would normally cope with, but as an amputee they can't because the muscle and bone is not there.
 
The problem is also that there are so many distinct phases to an athlete's performance, for example the sprint. From the gun going to crossing the finishing line, you accelerate from the block, you're then upright and through your drive phase, through to the cruise and then there's a dip at the end. These movements are all for anatomical structures; our bones and our muscles that will have to adapt to these changing circumstances, whereas a man-made prosthetic foot will not and can not. Unlike a human foot it may be optimised for one part of the sprint, but for the whole of the movement it cannot. You can make the best representation of a human foot, but in reality an athlete is just choosing from a range of standard items."
 05 September 2012 11:55 AM
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mvenables

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The outburst that came from Oscar Pistorius moments after crossing the finishing line behind Brazil's Alan Oliveira in the 200m at the weekend smacks of both hypocrisy and disrespect. The South African alleged that his opponent's prosthetics had artificially lengthened his stride, giving him an unfair advantage.

However with that assertion Pistorius, who runs against able-bodied athletes and competed in last month's Olympics, had damaged his argument that his prosthetics do not give him an advantage. In short he is suggesting that having the scope to lengthen the legs is not fair, an argument that has been thrown at him on many occasion by able-bodied athletes who, without the aid of prosthetics. He is now in a difficult place and can't have it both ways.'

That aside academics have been quick to defend the Brazilians victory. According to professor Steve Haake of Sheffield Hallam University stride length and the size of his prosthetics were not the deciding factors in the result.

"The practical outcome of larger blades is a greater stride length, assuming you turn over your legs at the same rate,'' he said. "But to do that, the mass of the legs needs to be smaller. It is called the conservation of angular momentum.

"Imagine the experiment when you spin someone round on an office chair with their arms outstretched. If they bring their arms in, they speed up. It is the same effect with athletes' prosthetics. When the mass is closer to the centre they are easier to spin.

"Just making the legs longer, therefore, doesn't necessarily make Oliveira quicker ... In any case, if you look at Oliveira, he actually took more strides, which means a shorter stride length. It was that that won him the race.''

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Mark Venables is Engineering Editor on Engineering & Technology. He is an award winning editor and jornalist with experience on national newspapers, consumer magazines and B2B publications covering many areas from technology to travel and formula One to films,
 05 September 2012 02:10 PM
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ianhaynes

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Ultimately, surely, the developments being made for the althletes help others with disablities.
 05 September 2012 04:09 PM
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AGDominey

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Certainly there have been some stunning advances in prosthetics to enable paralympians to achieve some of the massive goals that they have. However, these "tools" - for that IS what they are - should and ultimately must be controlled in the same manner that "tools" such as pole jumping poles are controlled. Some such as prosthetics cannot be a fixed length, but would have to be a fixed ratial length for total fairness in competition.
 05 September 2012 04:15 PM
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diviner

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Originally posted by: AGDominey

Some such as prosthetics cannot be a fixed length, but would have to be a fixed ratial length for total fairness in competition.


As I understand it, for runners they calculate what the athlete's height would be if they didn't need prostheses, based on two different measurements of their arm (elbow to wrist and centre of chest to the tip of the middle finger), and then the prosthesis is not allowed to make them more than (if I recall the figure correctly) 4% taller than this nominal equivalent height.

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Ian Gordon, MIET CITP MBCS
 05 September 2012 04:22 PM
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stephenboothuk

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The, possibly, trite but never the less true response to do prothetics give an advantage is to ask how many able bodied athletes are currently asking for amputations so they can take advantage of prosthetics? These people are dedicating their lives, their bosies, their minds, their diets and many hours each week to shaving seconds or even fractions of seconds off their times or add centimetres to their throws and jumps. They suffer injuries and pain in search of that gold medal or world record. They are totally focused in a way most people will never understand. If there was a measurable advantage to using prosthetics over their natural body then they would at least want to investigate it.

The issues raised by Oscar Pistorius could be relevant. Longer strides will generally translate to faster pace so if a double amputee who would normally have say a 32 inch inside leg, were it not for their amputation, has longer prosthetics which give them the equivalent of a 37 inch inside leg then that gives them (if I'm remembering the math right) a stride around 15% longer. That really only leaves a question of how much the additional power required to move the 'foot' the extra distance will offset the speed advantage. Where this is likely to cause an issue is where you have double amputees (who can take advantage of this) running against single amputees who can only use prosthetics that give them the same inside leg as their natural leg.
 05 September 2012 04:35 PM
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diviner

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Couple of quick points (before I go back to job-hunting) to fill in some information.

Firstly, Oscar Pistorius is allowed to be 1935mm tall including his prostheses, but currently chooses to stand 1845mm, compared with a rule-based limit of 1845mm for Oliveira, who chooses to stand 1810mm tall including his prostheses (both limits based on the arm measurement standard I referred to earlier).

Secondly, the length of the natural leg is not taken into account for the prosthesis measurement limits for a single amputee.

Thirdly, the reason the prosthesis limit is slightly more than the calculated "natural, non-amputee" leg length is partly because runners typically run on their toes not flat-footed and partly because body shapes - and hence leg-length-to-other-body-measurement ratios - vary somewhat from person to person.

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Ian Gordon, MIET CITP MBCS
 05 September 2012 05:45 PM
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stephenboothuk

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Originally posted by: diviner

Secondly, the length of the natural leg is not taken into account for the prosthesis measurement limits for a single amputee.


I was basing my comment about single amputees having to use prosthetics that give them the same inside leg as on their natural leg on the fact that they will need to be balanced to get optimum performance. Someone with a 32 inch natural inside leg would have problems with stability if the prosthetic didn't also give an equivalent of a 32 inch inside leg.
 06 September 2012 11:00 AM
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diviner

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I now can't find where I originally read it, but I am reasonably confident that they said it was common for the (single amputee) athlete to choose to have a prosthesis that didn't match their natural leg length.

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Ian Gordon, MIET CITP MBCS
 06 September 2012 11:32 AM
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steve2708

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Originally posted by: ianhaynes

Ultimately, surely, the developments being made for the althletes help others with disablities.


This is the case in many areas of life; the top end performance technology is flown down to other users, such as Sports, Aviation, Cars, Space travel etc.

It can be seen from the sprint starts that the longer blade users have difficulty coming out of the blocks, but once up and running they cover the ground very quickly, have a look at Oscar P 100m qualifier and this can be seen. So the supposed advantage would be seen more over longer distances.

Oscar went through a very rigorous process to prove he had no advantage over an abled bodied athlete, so is probably more in tune with the actual difference of different sized blades.

So for fairness yes look at the rules and see if they need to be revised, as the equipment is supposed to allow them to perform to their best on a level playing field, if the levelness of the playing field can be tampered with to gain an advantage regardless how small, it should be reviewed, has personal effort, hope and glory can be taken away in a split second.

I suppose one experiment Oscar could submit himself to would be to practice with his max height blades allowed under current rules and ask some of the max height blade wearers to reduce the height of the blades, and see what the actual timed results would show compared to their previous times. As those that live in the real world know regardless of the math's and computer analysis conducted only a real world test will show the true answer as there are too many individual variations to an athlete's performance, not just the blades?

Another issue with the advance of technology and fairness of playing field is with global sports events some athlete's do not have access to top class equipment, it is not just a case of giving everyone the same, one of the commentators said he was part of a Canadian team trying to help South American disable athlete's they found if they gave them top class equipment, they were attacked and the equipment stolen, so they had to give them good quality but not top of the range equipment for the athlete's own safety.
 06 September 2012 12:50 PM
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mvenables

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Just to clarift the IPC's rules. According to Peter Van de Vliet, the IPC's medical and scientific director Prostheses are adaptive equipment that are designed to restore a loss of function, not artificially enhance body length or performance. As its rules make clear, the IPC is committed to preventing the use of prostheses that lead to an unrealistic enhancement of stride length.

Since 2007, the IPC has used a formula to calculate the permitted length of prostheses for its athletes. For double amputees such as Pistorius and Oliveira, this is based on measuring each athlete's body and arm span, and using this data to estimate their overall height if they had legs. Athletes are allowed prosthetic limbs and feet that make them up to 3.5% taller than their estimated height including the blade at the end of their prosthesis. Many able-bodied athletes are unusually long-limbed and this margin allows for natural variations in body types as well as the fact that athletes stand taller - on their toes - when they run.

Until this week there has not been even a hint of controversy around this formula. Athletes are routinely measured to check they are within the regulations, and to my knowledge there has never been a complaint about the current system.

Pistorius runs at 1845mm but could under the IPC rules extend his prosthesis so he would stand 1935mm tall. For all the controversy over Oliveira's apparently height-enhancing prostheses, the Brazilian is not pushing at the upper limit of the IPC's rules. He now runs at 1810mm, but could still extend to 1845mm under the IPC's formula.

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Mark Venables is Engineering Editor on Engineering & Technology. He is an award winning editor and jornalist with experience on national newspapers, consumer magazines and B2B publications covering many areas from technology to travel and formula One to films,
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