The 2016 Rio Paralympic Games are now in full swing, with medals being won, records being broken, and a viewers from around the world being inspired. Plastics and polymers have had a huge influence upon these games, which may come as a surprise to you (even the medal ribbons are 50% recycled plastic bottles this year!). Technological and scientific advances are imperative to the continued growth and expansion of the paralympics, and all athletic endeavours. Carry on reading to find out some more about the technology on show at this year’s Games.
Let’s kick off, or more aptly, tip off, with wheelchair basketball. Although the majority of chairs used currently are made from welded titanium, there has been a significant increase in the belief that carbon fibre-reinforced polymers, typically polyepoxide-based, in fact offer the attributes desirable for a more successful wheelchair, typically leading to the chair being lightweight and manoeuvrable, but also able to withstand impact. Carbon fibre-reinforced polymers are more commonly used in running blades, a mainstay of the modern paralympic games, as they offer the best combination of strength and weight. Although this technology is not the norm within more chair-based sports, there are athletes who will be using these chairs, so it’s down to the action on the court for a preview of what may be more widespread in the future for wheelchair basketball.
There have also been developments on the chairs used throughout the games off the basketball court, whereby British athletes have been able to achieve a 20% increase in acceleration thanks to work between UK Sport and BAE Systems (more commonly associated with the aerospace industry). This increase in speed has been made possible for Team GB’s racing chairs through the development of a new, lighter composite-based wheel, that is also three times more rigid than previous wheels. This rigidity allows for a reduction in a force known as ‘toe-in’, and prevents the wheel from bending inwards as the athletes propel themselves forwards, thereby reducing the amount of friction between the athlete and the track. As we know, a margin of 20% is a big deal in athletic competition, so this development will have a huge impact on athletes’ hunt for gold.
It isn’t only Team GB who have put time into developing their wheelchairs, the US team have teamed up with BMW to create ‘the world’s fastest wheelchair’. The chair does not resemble a traditional chair, with its low, long, and triangular body produced from carbon fibre by BMW’s California-based design firm Designworks. Each chair is also personalised to fit each individual athlete to allow their performance to be optimised even further.These developments will lead to some intense competition this year, which may not only be between the athletes, but also between the companies behind the chairs too.
Image courtesy of BMW
Canoeing & Kayaking
Taking a dip in the waters of Brazil may conjure up images of golden beaches and lapping shore lines, and although that may be true, the athletes at the Paralympics will be competing in somewhat less relaxing circumstances. Events such as the paracanoe and rowing are in full effect, and the technology involved is proving to hold an influence on the speed, agility and success of the athletes. The shape, style and flexibility of canoes and kayaks is heavily influenced by innovations in plastics technology, with these materials able to offer the development of more lightweight apparatus without sacrifice of their rigidity.
Canoe events were introduced into the Paralympics for the first time this year, with six medal events added. It is no surprise that racing canoes are no longer made of wood or bark, but instead most are now constructed from the polymer Kevlar, which allows for an increase in speed and agility due to the lightweight nature of the material.
As well as the canoes and kayaks themselves, plastics are incorporated into the events at the Lagoa Stadium in Rio, with high-density polyurethane blocks used to form obstacles. These objects take the form of artificial rocks and are bolted together to the bottom of the water channel in order to constrict the water flow with the aim of replicating a natural whitewater feature.
Image courtesy of Rio 2016 Paralympic Games
The use of polyurethane swimsuits has caused much controversy over the years at the Olympic and Paralympic Games, with the use of whole-body suits being banned since 2010 and the the 2012 London Games. Of course, athletes have long sourced any advantages in competition, such as removing every follicle of hair from their bodies, but the banned suits are an example of technology advancement gone too far (in the eyes of the Olympic governing bodies, that is). The suits allowed for swimmers to become far more buoyant as a result of the extremely thin material trapping small pockets of air. Maybe there is room for technological development in this event, but even without these suits, paralympians have already been posting some impressive times in the pool this year.
The world’s first 3D-printed prosthesis will be on show at this year’s Games, a milestone in prosthetic technology. German cyclist Denise Schindler, with the help of software company Autodesk, will be using the fully 3D-printed polycarbonate-based prosthesis as she competes for gold in Rio. A significant advantage of using such technology is the pace at which the limb can be produced using a 3D printer, rather than by hand as standard athletic prosthetic limbs are generally produced. This increased speed of production allows for any necessary changes to be made to the design with little disruption, meaning the prosthesis can evolve at a greater pace during the production process. Additionally, as the prosthesis is prepared from an electronic blueprint obtained from 3D scanning of the athlete, the joint prepared can provide a much better fit than can be achieved through the useful method of plaster casting. The team have been printing and testing a range of printed prostheses based on polycarbonate split into two parts, and the development will continue right until the start of the Games, with the aim to have the most aerodynamic version possible.
The hope is that this technology will open the door for these new types of prosthetic limbs to become available not only to elite athletes, but also to be more readily accessible to a much larger range of people who have suffered the loss of a limb. Schindler herself has said that a huge goal of hers is to ‘open up the sports world for the average amputated person’. Developments such as this could not only help to make the dreams of those inspired to compete at the Paralympics a closer reality, but also to assist those using prostheses in their everyday lives.
Video courtesy of Dezeen