Paralympians to out-perform able-bodied soon thanks to prosthetic advances, say experts
12:17 GMT, 28 August 2012
Oscar Pistorius made history in when he became the first double-amputee to compete at the Olympics, and despite failing to take a medal, experts believe Paralympians will soon be outperforming their able-bodied counterparts, thanks in part to future developments in prosthetics.
It is claimed the breakthrough made by 'Blade Runner' will spur other disabled athletes to go even further, perhaps using more advanced prosthetics.
'The technology will only improve,' said Bryce Dyer, an engineering design expert focusing on elite sport at Bournemouth University.
History maker: South Africa's Oscar Pistorius competed against able-bodied athletes during the Olympics at London 2012
David James of the Centre for Sports Engineering Research at Sheffield Hallam University, added: 'We're already at the era where prosthetics can outstrip human performance. With the developments being made in things like powered knees and ankle joints, athletes will soon be flying down the track.
'It's possible Paralympic athletes could one day run faster than Usain Bolt.'
The blades currently being used don't give Paralympic runners the same amount of energy able-bodied runners get from their legs – the athletes are powered only by their hamstrings or hip flexor muscles, as opposed to the additional power a regular runner gets from his or her thigh, calf and ankle.
'In the future, you might see nanotube technology that could produce the same structure as in a biological leg and give you the same amount of energy,' said Philippa Oldman, head of manufacturing at the Institute of Mechanical Engineers.
Oldman added that carbon fiber blades like the ones used by Pistorius don't offer any net advantage.
Advances: Stef Reid has six pairs of prosthetic legs used for different activities
Still, it's unclear how much these high-tech prostheses will help ordinary people who need artificial limbs. Prosthetics in the Paralympics are the product of thousands of dollars of research and designed for a very specific purpose: improving sports performance. Their benefits may trickle down to the general population, but much of what is showcased at the Paralympics is restricted to elite athletes.
Bruce McLelland, an engineer who has an artificial leg, said the prosthetics used at the Paralympics are 'a world away' from what he uses. McLelland has a normal artificial leg for everyday use and another one for swimming.
He said his legs incorporate some of the design of the running blades, including being made of carbon fiber so they are lightweight while also being strong and flexible.
'The blades are great if you're going to go running, but they would not suit everyday life,' he said. 'They also don't really fit well into your normal trouser legs,' McLelland said.
In wheelchair sports, some countries including Britain and Japan have partnered with car companies to ensure the wheelchairs will one day be available on the mass market.
To give athletes an edge in sports like wheelchair rugby and basketball, the chairs are now more agile and lightweight, an advantage ordinary wheelchair users could certainly benefit from.
Still, McLelland said his artificial leg, even if it is somewhat outdated, is just fine. 'I'm very happy with it and haven't noticed anything detrimental,' he said. 'But then again, I'm not trying to break any world records.'