Techno-science gives ray of hope to people living with disabilities

Kenya's Asiya Mohammed Sururu, who plays wheelchair tennis, badminton and Para-rowing, qualified for the Para-rowing at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. [Courtesy]

To have trained for just a year and made it to the world’s most prestigious event in a sport that demands stamina, endurance and strength is not only heroic but also inspirational.

Kenya’s Asiya Sururu Mohammed became the first Kenyan to qualify for rowing at the Paralympics in October 2019 in Tunisia.

Postponement of the 2020 Tokyo games due to coronavirus has not only delayed her dream but on the positive side, given her more time to secure her new Swift Racing boat, a gift she received in Tunisia after her qualification.

For those who have seen Asiya train in Tudor, Mombasa, the 40kgs boat she uses is actually not modern in any way. Modern para-rowing boats like the one she got in Tunisia, but yet to be delivered to her, are not only lighter at approximately 25kgs, but also made of composite materials that make them faster and easier to handle.

At the 2008 Beijing Summer Paralympics where para-rowing featured for the first time, para-rowers raced on wooden and fibre glass boats. Twelve years later, scientific innovations have produced lighter and stronger boats made from carbon fibre and the honeycomb sandwich construction style with vacuum bag technology and polymerisation in high-temperature ovens.

Made from this new technology, Asiya’s boat, a Swift Elite Plus Adaptive model, is custom made for a PR1 category rower like her with arms and shoulder functionality.

Having been using an improvised normal and heavy rowing boat, with this lighter and modern boat, it is anyone’s guess what she might score at the Paralympic games in Tokyo next year.

Thanks to such technology, over the years, its impact in para-sports has been quite observable especially when one looks at the number of participants in Paralympics; in 2008 the games had 3,951 athletes while in the 2016 edition there were 4,342 athletes competing in 22 sporting events.

Paralympian Marieke Vervoort of Belgium. [PHOTO: COURTESY]

In para-sports, classification is everything. The International Paralympics Committee (IPC) developed sporting classes based on muscle functionality and intellectual impairment.

This is more or less similar to grouping able bodied athletes by gender, weight or age. The classification systems are specific to the sport in question and take into account the physical, visual or intellectual impairment of the athlete.

Thanks to techno-science, many persons with disabilities (PWD) can now take part in the sports of their choice. This has led to more classifications to accommodate all new entrants.

With the new categories coming courtesy of technology, there are concerns that the various equipment and devices will not just allow less-able athletes to have a fair and equal opportunity to participate in sports but if not checked, some people might have an undeserved and unearned advantage.

The big and perceived fear is that we have reached a point where techno-science can trump genetics, talent, training and effort. Are the above fears founded?

These fears were aptly expressed by Michael Johnson, the celebrated American 400m sprinter when reacting to the South African double amputee - Oscar Pistorius’- participation in the 2012 London Olympics able bodied 400m race.

He said allowing Oscar to run on carbon-fibre prosthetics might give him an unfair advantage. Oscar reached the semi-finals where he was eliminated. He is so far the only para-athlete to compete against able bodied athletes at the Olympics.

Oscar Pistorius of South Africa competes in men's 4x400m relay final at London 2012 Olympic Games, London, Britain, Aug. 10, 2012. The team of South Africa ranked 8th with 3:03.46. [Xinhua/Yin Gang)(zgp]

In Pistorius’ case, it was about the advantage the prosthetics limbs were presumably giving him. Since then, issues on bodily repairs and augmentation are at the heart of many debates regarding the use of techno-science in sports and it is about time we faced the role of science in para-sports.

Science and sports have always been best of friends. Take the case of Xiborg - a Japanese company developing running blades that they hope will enable America’s Jarryd Wallace to win a gold medal in 100m and 200m para-sprinting events in next year’s Tokyo Paralympics.

These prostheses have become lighter and stronger over time and can now withstand higher load demand while not inhibiting the user due to weight load.

The blades further mimic the spring-like nature of the Achilles tendon and adopt a Cheetah-like architecture to enable lower limb amputees achieve higher heights to inch closer to the Olympic levels.

Although wheelchairs are common tools for athletes with lower limbs challenges participating in endurance races, prostheses offer a good alternative among sprinters.

However, IPC recommends that the prosthetics should not enhance the athletes’ performance beyond their natural physical ability. This therefore creates a need for the technology and equipment to be safe, fair, universal and enable natural physical prowess.

Prosthetics should improve quality of life of individuals affected especially after a limb loss. They could include powered limbs, robotic arms, mind-controlled limbs and 3D-printed limbs.

Innovations in robotics have led to advancement in prosthetic technology that can enable athletes move naturally using Cyborg prosthesis. The race to develop the best movement assistive technologies has led to creation of Cybathlon in Switzerland.

This is a unique championship for people with movement challenges to compete against each other in completing everyday tasks using these state-of-the-art technical assistance systems.

Germany's Paralympic athlete Markus Rehm warms up in a long jump demonstration in Tokyo on August 25, 2019, as part of a countdown event marking one year before the start of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. [Photo by Kazuhiro NOGI / AFP]

Science has been the enabler and the hope for para-athletes as it has allowed humanity to transcend the limitations of people living with disabilities to display their brilliance and creativity.

Daniel Safari is a living testament of para-athletes who have transcended their limitations. If all goes as per plan, he might be flying the Kenyan flag high in Beijing at the 2022 Winter Paralympics.

He is now eying a slot in the LW2 skiing category. His story is equally inspiring. Having lost his right leg at the age of five after an amputation caused by a snake bite, when an opportunity to start skiing came calling, he took it and started training in earnest in 2011 in South Korea as a single amputee skier.

His current Atomic G9 X12 skis with a pre-stressed rod inside them can accelerate him to speeds in excess of 40km per hour, all this thanks to the latest ski technology that uses top quality wood, laminated with titanium and steel edges.

For this dream of bringing more people with disabilities into sports to continue, there is need to develop high performance para-sport equipment that are universally accessible and affordable, since the challenge Safari and many other athletes attempting sports like skiing and others that are heavy on equipment, is lack of funds.

It is now up to the sport’s governing bodies to catch up with techno-science and constantly give direction on what kind of science will keep sport as a social and human endeavour affordable and accessible by all and at the same time competitive and meritocratic.


- Paul Ochieng is a Dean of Students at Strathmore University and Gerald Lwande is a Biomedical Scientist.

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