When there's a significant technological advance that might help Olympians reach new heights, like the infamous (and now banned) Speedo LZR swimsuits, we all sit up and take notice. But of all the Games, the most technologically advanced, the most fascinating for those of us curious about the melding of human and machine, is the Winter Paralympic Games.
The Olympic Games, for able-bodied athletes, rely heavily on science and technology, but it's not nearly as visible as in the Paralympic Games. "The technology in the Paralympics is much more visible during competition," says Ian Brittain of Coventry University, a sports sociologist who's heavily involved with the Paralympic Games (and has actually written a definitive history of them). The science and tech with able-bodied athletes mostly comes before the actual competition, in the training process. "The athletes will have used an awful lot of technology to get to the position they're in," he says, "but they don't necessarily use it when they're actually competing." But Paralympic athletes often require some pretty amazing tech to compete.
So why winter? "All of the winter sports rely on some kind of technology," says Brittain. In the summer Paralympics, some events (like, say, swimming) can be performed without the use of prostheses or other tools. Not so during the winter. "For the winter games, whatever sport you decide to do, you need equipment for it," he says. Whether that's flying down an alpine ski course on a sit-ski, or curling from a wheelchair, or playing hockey in a sled, the demands of the cold weather sports include gear. And it's phenomenally competitive. The Paralympics, like the Olympics, are now a game of centimeters, grams, and milliseconds.
Then there's the increased popularity (the TV networks show and advertise more of the Games every cycle, and participation grows as well) and funding of the Paralympics, which creates a nice circular pattern of better and better technology. You've got some of the biggest and most innovative technology companies in the world—Boeing, Dyson, many more—all working on amazing gear for disabled athletes, because it brings them positive attention to make amazing things for the increasingly popular event.
The gear developed for the Paralympics can benefit the disabled outside the competitive sports world as well. "There's a lot of money going into developing paralympic sports equipment. It takes a while, but it does have benefits for the disabled community as a whole," says Brittain. "Lighter, better equipment becomes available for the Paralympics, and then slowly, over time, those new technologies trickle down into the general population of people with disabilities." Steel wheelchairs in the 1960s, for example, weighed upwards of 50 pounds, but the advent of carbon fiber—which first achieved popularity amongst athletes—eventually trickled down to the mainstream.
There is still a major funding gap, not only between the Olympics and Paralympics, but between the developed and developing nations. The technology requirement "is probably one of the reasons why there's only 45 nations competing at the Sochi Paralympic games, compared to 164 in London," says Brittain. Poorer countries just can't devote the kind of resources needed to train disabled athletes and provide them with this incredibly expensive, high-tech equipment. But! That's changing. The number of countries competing in the Winter Paralympics has been steadily increasing over time, and the amount of coverage the Games get has followed suit. This year, NBC is showing most of the semifinal and final events, albeit on its cable network NBCSN. (The only event that'll be shown on regular NBC is the sled hockey final.) Still, that's a major improvement over the 2010 Winter Paralympics in Vancouver, of which NBC only aired the opening and closing ceremonies—and on NBCSN.
Here's a guide to some of the games—and the gear—to watch for during the Winter Paralympics, which go until March 22nd.
Sled hockey might be the most fun of all the Paralympic sports to watch. The rules are pretty much the same as hockey; five players, a goalie, same penalties, same rules. But the gear makes it a very different sport. The key gear, as in able-bodied hockey, are the skates and the stick. But the skates are set up on the bottom of a sort of minimalist sled: just a bare seat with the two blades underneath, and a slim piece of metal extending forward for balance. The reason the blades don't extend the entire way under the sled is so players can still pass the puck underneath the sled. Sled hockey is open to Paralympians with varying degrees of immobility in the lower half of their bodies (and only to men, right now).
The sticks are different too; for one thing, players use two of them. They can't be longer than 25 cm (less than 10 inches). On one end they have a curved blade, like a regular hockey stick, but instead of a rubber or taped cap at the other end, there's an ice pick. Yeah, an ice pick, with six teeth. To move around, players reverse their sticks and jab the pick side into the ice to push themselves forward, almost like ski poles for cross-country skiing. But it's still full-contact hockey, and just as rough as you'd expect. Fights and everything.
Biathlon is a combination of cross-country skiing and sharpshooting with a rifle—sounds weird, but the challenge is all about control. Your heart-rate skyrockets from the skiing, then you have to control your body to pull off very precise actions with the rifle. This year's Paralympic biathlon event is open to those with either physical disabilities or visual impairment. There are special skis for those who can't use regular skis, and special rifles to allow those missing an arm (or part of an arm) to load and hold a rifle. But maybe the most intriguing is the rifle for the visually impaired.
Yep, the blind are given guns. And they can aim them thanks to electro-acoustic headphones, which make a different noise to indicate where you're aiming. Move farther away from the target, and the pitch of the sound goes down. You can see them in action at about 2:30 in the video above.
Alpine skiers, those crazy athletes who fling themselves down the steepest sides of mountains at top speed, don't need the use of their legs—they only need a specialized bit of gear. It's called a mono-ski, or sitting ski. The mono-ski for alpine skiing is a single, but standard, racing ski, attached to a seat almost like a motorcycle saddle. The legs are tucked into a shell for the sake of aerodynamics, and there's a shock absorber under the seat (able-bodied alpine skiers use their legs as shock absorbers).
They don't use traditional poles, either; with only one ski, it can be very hard to control movement or, maybe more importantly, to stop yourself from falling down a mountain. So the poles actually have small skis at the bottom, to help guide the mono-skier. And they need the help, because these things can fly. Paralympic alpine skiers can regularly go faster than 70 mph—very nearly as fast as the 80 mph that a world-class able-bodied alpine skier aims for.
Wheelchair curling is, if anything, even harder and more finicky than the able-bodied version. Wheelchair curlers are stationary and use a pole to push the curling stone, which makes things much more difficult: able-bodied curlers can slide with the stone, guiding it precisely from the ground, making small adjustments here and there. Wheelchair curlers have nothing like that; they have to make the tiniest, most minute changes in trajectory and speed and spin with a mere few inches of space.
And, there are no sweepers, those two players that frantically brush the ice in front of the sliding puck, in wheelchair curling. The sweepers would usually make further adjustments after the stone is pushed, smoothing the ice to increase speed or reduce spin. Not so for wheelchair curlers, who have to make the perfect throw each time.