How has science changed the practice of sports for the disabled?

A sports basketball match between Saint-Avold and Hyères. Illustrative image. (Christian LANTENOIS L’UNION / L’ARDENNAIS / MAXPPP)

Science has advanced the performance of athletes through research into biomechanics and advances in sports equipment. If we take the example of a wheelchair, then 40 years ago a basketball player was playing with a wheelchair in the city, and therefore with straight wheels. But now, with the wheels tilting inward at a 10 to 25 degree angle, athletes turn more easily using their wheelchair, just by bending occasionally, explained Arnaud Fauben, a biomechanics researcher and consultant to the French Handsport Federation. This also improved the stability of the chair: the basketball player could stand on one wheel to increase the height.

Additionally, the chair’s weight has been reduced by three since the 1980s thanks to carbon, aluminum and titanium. During running events, 95% of athletes now turn the wheels of a wheelchair, using rigid gloves, allowing for better energy recovery. The same principle has been applied to recent generations of racing prosthetics: by playing with the material and the bending of the blade, engineers are increasingly able to restore the good energy of movement, the energy closest to that of the missing organ.

The international level has increased a lot, and the disabled athlete trains as much as the fit athlete, because not only does it take hours of training to maintain his physical condition, but, as coach and coach Serge Robert has shown us, it takes time to find the perfect settings with a chair or prosthetic limb. This is sometimes reduced to the nearest centimeter.

For the Paralympic Games to begin, France hopes to rank among the top 10 countries. Then, to better prepare for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, a research program with 13 health and biomechanics laboratories has already been launched. It aims to provide some disabled athletes with all kinds of sensors, to help them find the correct settings during training, and the correct gestures, with their prosthetic limb or chair, in order to be more efficient and avoid injuries.

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For all disabled sports equipment, there are subtle specifications to consider, with the size of the wheelchair wheels or the length of the prosthesis, for example. And all this is checked and measured before every event.

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