Technological innovation and advances in equipment are key for great performances in sports played by people with disabilities today, as they rapidly close the gap with able-bodied sportspeople, but experts believe it is still an athlete’s ability that matters most.
Ken Endo, chief executive officer of prosthesis startup Xiborg Co., insisted the advancement of technology and evolution of the equipment alone will not make athletes run faster or jump farther because they must still maximize their full potential when using high-functioning blades.
They must have the strength to apply enough power and figure out effective ways to move their bodies to do so, he said.
A team led by Endo has been developing sports prostheses for disabled athletes such as American Paralympian sprinter Jarryd Wallace, who has signed a contract with Xiborg.
«We truly take an athlete-first approach in developing blades because our ultimate purpose is to let athletes run fast,» said Endo, adding that athletes themselves are deeply involved in the development of their artificial legs by providing ideas and opinions which are reflected in the device to maximize ability.
«Not only athletes themselves but also coaches, prosthetists, and engineers express their opinions to achieve the team’s common goal. Since I’m the team leader, I integrate those opinions and reflect them in the making (of blades),» he said, stressing that it is the production process that makes Xiborg products unique.
At the 2018 Asian Para Games held in October in Indonesia, Japan’s Keita Sato, wearing Xiborg’s running blade, won the men’s 200-meter sprint in the T44/T62/64 category, competing with athletes with lower-limb impairments.
«If someone (wearing a blade) runs fast, that’s basically because the person is a fast runner,» Endo said, saying prostheses are tools and an extension of the athlete.
The blade Sato used in Indonesia was adjusted with improved weight balance so that he felt it was easier to handle compared with the one he used at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympics, according to Endo.
The blade itself was made shorter and lighter by straightening its curved line leading to the socket while the overall weight of the equipment including a connector is a little heavier, Endo said.
He is hoping to shed another 100 grams from the equipment, and its mass will be even more concentrated around its socket for easier handling, Endo said about a new blade planned for release.
Citing an example of German athlete Markus Rehm, who holds a long-jump world record of 8.4 meters for para-athletes, Endo said the reason Rehm was able to deliver such an awe-inspiring performance among other blade jumpers competing under the same conditions is because he is a superb athlete.
Controversy notwithstanding, Rehm even defeated able-bodied jumpers to win the national championships in Germany in 2014.
Following the competition, an athletic body said athletes using prosthetics should be required to establish that the return force on the artificial limb does not provide a competitive advantage, as a condition for competing with able-bodied athletes in international events.
Rehm also saw his bid to compete in the Rio Olympics against able-bodied athletes fall short as he was unable to prove that his blades did not give him an advantage.
(Endo shows Xiborg’s running blade )
Endo thinks it is probably impossible to objectively prove the fairness of athletes wearing blades competing against bladeless athletes. But the jury is still out on whether carbon-fiber blades prostheses provide an advantage and the issue is hotly debated.
Regarding the relationship between technological innovation and Paralympic performance, Xavier Gonzalez, chief executive officer of the International Paralympic Committee, also argues it is «only the support for the performance» rather than «a factor in the performance.»
«We don’t want to stop the innovation but we want to make sure that innovation doesn’t change the fairness of the competition,» Gonzalez said in a recent interview in Tokyo.
«And in the same line, we are working continuously to improve classification to ensure to take advantage of technologies. It never stops,» he said.
In the meantime, great performances by disabled athletes, due in part to enhanced technology and equipment, at the Paralympics and other events will impact people’s mindset and understanding of disabilities, Endo said, based on his own experience of working with a person with disability for the first time.
Endo became interested in research and development of artificial limbs because a friend from high school suffered an osteosarcoma, a cancerous tumor in the bone, and became a lower-limb amputee.
When Endo was wondering what types of technology in bipedal robot research could help his friend walk again, he met Hugh Herr, who has been leading the Media Lab’s Biomechatronics Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His encounter with Herr led him to MIT.
While studying robotic limbs at MIT as a student, Endo’s view toward people with a disability, as well as how to treat them, completely changed through his experience of working with Herr, an associate professor and amputee climber himself.
Prior to his MIT days, Endo pitied people with disabilities. But he started to see them no differently to abled-bodied people, an outlook he continues to believe in today.
Herr was known as a child climbing prodigy but both of his legs were amputated below the knee after he suffered severe frostbite in a climbing incident. Now he climbs at even higher levels than he did before his amputations, using prostheses he designed himself.
Endo suggested the current perception of able-bodied and disabled people — people with disabilities always being less capable than people without disabilities — as well as the notion of disability itself, will change after athletes perform in the Tokyo Paralympics.
He pointed out that human abilities are not universal because they often depend on a certain environment or condition.
«Supremacy in today’s environment does not necessarily lead to supremacy in another environment tomorrow,» Endo said.
As the trend of humans getting faster or improving with the assistance of advancing technology continues to grow, «only people capable of continuously changing will win out,» he said.
All — Kyodo News+