The Olympics are over, and Team GB have had another record breaking games. Exceeding their haul from the London Games of 2012, the British sports superstars brought back 67 medals from the Rio Olympics – their highest number from an overseas Games to date. But their accomplishments are just the prelude – for some of us anyway – to the “real” sporting event of the summer: the Paralympics. This is an event which sees people not only battle against fatigue, and their opponents, but also against the challenges posed by “normality” itself.
The Paralympic events do, in many ways, mirror the standard games, with a large number of different sports competing for our attention. But to many of us, the Olympics and the Paralympics will always truly be associated with the traditional track and field events. The runners, the jumpers, the throwers, these are who many consider to be the true “Olympians”.
When we watch the Olympic Games, we know that we are watching the best of the best. The fastest, the strongest, taking bodies much like ours to the limit of their capability and endurance. We can all do the things we see on screen, we can run, we can jump, and we can throw – albeit not as well. But move on to the Paralympics, and we see something else. We see people who are often not like us, not physically anyway.
Some of these athletes do not have their natural limbs, but we see them jumping, throwing, and running, often with the use of prostheses. In many cases, artificial limbs are worn for function – they are preferable to a wheelchair in most instances – but they are also worn for cosmetic reasons, and to provide symmetry. In a world where image has often been paramount, the thought of being “abnormal” or different is not often a pleasant one.
Many prosthetic limbs have, in the past at least, been developed to look as much like their prospective replacement body parts as possible. Sometimes, though, this actually works against the establishment of pure function, particularly if the required function is fairly narrowly focused, like running.
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With this in mind, an amputee engineer by the name of Van Philips decided to take another look at the design of prosthetic feet. Rather than stick to the original “foot shaped” concept, Philips examined the key components of running, and decided to provide a foot that could simply meet these requirements, unconstrained by the original “foot shape”.
His resultant “flex foot” or “blade” became synonymous with the Paralympic sprinters and runners who epitomise the modern Paralympians. Made from layers of laminated carbon fibre, and presented in that now familiar “C” shape, the “flex foot” could absorb large amounts of impact energy, at the beginning of the gait or running cycle, which would protect the prosthesis user from painful forces around their residual limbs.
It could also store and release this energy at the end of gait cycle during what is called the “push off” phase, literally “springing” the user forward along the track. The result was a foot that redefined the possibilities of prosthetic running.
More perhaps than any other visual event, Paralympic sprinting shows what can be achieved by dedication, commitment and a design that challenges what can ostensibly be called the “accepted” boundaries. But we mustn’t forget that these feet and other prosthetic devices are only as good as the person who is using them. And it is only in conjunction with a dedicated, elite, talented athlete that we can see the stunning performance outcomes that both enthral and amaze.
The achievements of the Paralympians, alongside societal shifts towards more inclusivity and the celebration of diversity has had a dramatic effect on the lives of people living with disability.
And changes in the perception of disability in society has led many people with limb absence to feel empowered to embrace their physical status, rather than hide it from public view – showcasing their prostheses with colourful and dynamic components. They are proud to wear their prostheses as positive attributes, rather than illustrations of any perceived disability.
Philips and others like him would be proud. So let us all celebrate the achievements of those at the Paralympics this summer, and remember that whatever the circumstances, nothing is impossible.
Here’s to the super-humans.