Decoding Design

At the paralympics, blades and wheelchairs score big design points

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Oscar "Bladerunner" Pistorius isn't the only fleet-footed paralympian with seriously impressive gear.

Forget high-tech swimsuits and track bikes, prosthetic limbs and wheelchairs are the design all-stars of the paralympic games, and The Guardian newspaper has an interesting overview of Britain's leading paralympic athletes and the gear they use to battle for gold.

The lightweight materials, construction and performance of prosthetic limbs and chairs gets better each year, in fact South African runner Oscar Pistorius had to fight long and hard to be able to compete against runners without disabilities in the main Olympic games last month, where he made it to the semifinals of the individual 400-meter and the 400-meter relay final, because officials initially said his carbon fiber legs gave him an unfair advantage over his able-bodied opponents. But he was stunned -- and miffed -- by his second-place finish in the T44 200m final in the paralympics games on Sunday. Ironically, Pistorius initially complained that the prosthetic legs worn by Brazilian Alan Fonteles Cardoso Oliveira, who beat him by a .07 second, were not valid because of their length, which gave him spring. (He later apologized for his ungracious reaction to losing, and the legs worn by Oliveira turned out to be legal. You can watch the race here.)

Still, there are design quirks that companies developing high-end performance prosthetic limbs and wheelchairs are constantly making to increase speed, improve aerodynamics and fit more seamlessly to the athlete's body. Marrying the smooth carbon fiber of running "blades" with the spikes needed to grip the track is still a work in process, design-wise.

Plus, many competitors in the paralympics require highly customized devices that able-bodied athletes in the same sports would never dream of. British discus thrower and wounded veteran Derek Derenalagi requires an elaborate seat that is secured to the ground in four places and holds his upper body down with two seatbelts while his prosthetic feet are locked into stirrups.

British archer Danielle Brown, who has a condition called chronic regional pain syndrome which makes it hard to stand, has a completely bespoke stool that allows her to remain upright and stable. The equipment, which replaced an old bike frame that she initially fashioned into a brace, has helped her greatly improve her ranking. Her countryman and track cyclist Jody Cundy used to compete as a swimmer in the paralympics but has switched to track cycling. With a newly designed prosthetic leg, made by the orthopedic company Össur, which also makes the running blades that Pistorius wears, he's a favorite to medal in London.

Here's a video of American paralympian Jessica Galli describing her racing chair, made by Draft.

Via: The Guardian

Image: Jim Thurston

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Mary Catherine O'Connor

Contributing Writer

Mary Catherine O'Connor has written for Outside, Fast Company, Wired.com, Smithsonian.com, Entrepreneur, Earth2Tech.com, Earth Island Journal and The Magazine. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure