Is Science Sloping the Paralympic Playing Field?

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The Paralympics is sometimes regarded as the weaker cousin of the Olympics, yet the science and innovation behind even getting the athletes to the starting line is an achievement worthy of a gold medal in itself, one which far surpasses that of the Olympics. However, controversy has struck as many believe science has now gone beyond aiding athletes to compete on a level playing field, and is now discriminating against the more poorly funded athletes. It is becoming apparent that by providing better technology based on scientific testing at significantly higher prices, equality within the sport is starting to wane.

The Paralympics are much more than a test of pure skill within a discipline. The athletes also require sheer determination, nerves of steel, and in the majority of cases, specific adaptations, either to themselves or to the sport itself. It is the level of scientific interference which is causing the controversy.

Paralympic athletes are categorised regarding their degree of function. This degree of function has some impact on which sports the individual can participate in, but the categories are there to ensure a level playing field between athletes. Inevitably there have to be some physical adjustments: for example, the use of wheelchairs for athletes with reduced mobility, or the addition of a guide for visually impaired runners. Increasingly, however, there is a demand for technology which not only physically aids the individual but enhances performance.

The humble wheelchair is perhaps one of the best examples of the changing role science has had within the Paralympics. It showcases the trend of transforming what was initially used as a purely functional item which increased mobility for athletes, but can now be purchased in a variety of styles and designs depending on the sport. For example, those which are required to be nimble and turn in tight spaces, such as those on a basketball court, now frequently contain off-camber wheels and a back wheel which aids manoeuvrability whilst also preventing the chair from tipping backwards and seriously injuring the athlete. Those used in track cycling, however, have a much lower position in comparison and allow the athletes to tuck their legs beneath the seat to reduce drag by maintaining a more aerodynamic position.

Some are calling for restrictions as there were with the FINA full body swimsuits in 2010, which were banned from all major competitions because they were shown to aid performance. So enhanced was the performance that some critics called it “technological doping”, as the suits artificially helped to shed additionally accumulated water from areas such as the stitching, and therefore reduced drag. The cost of the suits and complaints of some athletes wearing several suits at the time led to some commentators and athletes claiming they were “making the competition more about technology then natural talent”. An international ruling and potential ban is the sort of action many are calling for in the world of Paralympics so that once again talent and outstanding human achievement can be at the heart of the games.

Despite the significant scientific contribution which is enabling many more people to enter the variety of Paralympic sports available, it is now also controversially being used in aiding performance. It is this expensive science-based research into performance enhancement technology which is excluding those without funds large enough to commission the research, testing and development. It is this exclusion that is the complete paradox of the Paralympic Games ethos that event organisers want to exclude without compromising the future of individuals and their disciplines.

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