National | GEARING UP FOR THE GAMES

Advanced tech used by Paralympic athletes could throw perception of disabilities into question

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writer

Fifth of six parts

On Dec. 10, some 40 elementary school children showed up for a running workshop at Shin-Toyosu Brillia Running Stadium, a brand new indoor track facility opened the day before in Tokyo’s waterfront Toyosu district.

After an hourlong session, during which the children cheerfully jumped about and dashed across the tracks, one of the coaches suddenly got their attention.

“Now, here are some pairs of magic shoes. If you use them you can run 100 meters in 9 seconds! Don’t you want to try?”

Intrigued, the students tried on the prosthetics, carbon-fiber blades normally reserved for amputee athletes. The ones prepared by staff that day — as part of education about sports for people with disabilities — had been remodeled into something like stilts, with a platform for the feet, so that anyone can experience walking and running on the blades.

It was not clear how many of the children that day knew that no athlete on earth has yet run 100 meters in just 9 seconds (the closest so far is Usain Bolt’s 9.58, set in 2009).

If we ever do see a sprinter achieve such a historic feat in the future, there’s a chance it may not be at the Olympics, but at the Paralympics.

Equipment for athletes with impairments, such as prosthetic blades, have become so technologically advanced in recent years that some “blade runners” and “blade jumpers,” as prosthetic-wearing athletes are sometimes called, are getting closer than ever to beating their able-bodied counterparts.

This tectonic shift in elite sports is changing the perception of para sport — or sport for people with disabilities — which started in Europe after World War II as a means of rehabilitation for wounded soldiers.

Compared with longer distance races, 100-meter races are still considered the domain of able-bodied runners, as amputee runners have a hard time picking up speed at the start.

Ken Endo, founder of Tokyo-based prosthetics venture Xiborg, which provided the trial blades for the children at the workshop, says his goal is to tip that balance, to make it possible for an amputee sprinter to beat an able-bodied one in the 100-meter race, a star track event.

Endo, an MIT-educated mechanical engineer, says he is excited by the technology’s potential to remove physical barriers for all people.

“What’s interesting about athletes with prosthetic limbs is that, when their gear matches their running style, their potential for getting faster is huge,” Endo said recently at the Xiborg lab beside the tracks at the Shin-Toyosu facility.

It’s not uncommon for top “blade runners” to shorten their 100-meter race time by 0.5 second in a matter of a year or so — an almost unthinkable accomplishment in the Olympics, where the world’s fastest sprinters toil at improving their time by 1/100 second.

However, prosthetic blades — in which dozens of super-thin layers of carbon fiber are curved and laminated to work like a spring when the wearer jumps or runs — have also caused considerable controversy.

Critics charge that such performance-enhancing tools amount to “technical doping.” Debates are raging even in the Paralympic community over the “unfair advantage” gained by runners who use longer blades.

Four years ago, at the London Games, South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius made history by becoming the first athlete with prosthetic legs to compete in the Olympics (he also ran in the Paralympics that year).

In the run-up to the Rio Games, Markus Rehm, a German single-amputee long jumper, was barred from competing in the Olympics after being unable to prove that his prosthetic right leg does not give him an unfair advantage. Rehm, who went on to compete in the Paralympics, won the T44 category for single below-the-knee amputees with a leap of 8.21 meters, just 17 cm short of the 8.38 meters recorded by Rio Olympic champion Jeff Henderson.

Of course, not all top Paralympic talents want to compete in the Olympics.

Jarryd Wallace, the reigning U.S. champion in 100 meters (T44) who visited Japan last month to attend the opening of the Shin-Toyosu stadium and to test Xiborg blades, said he is not interested in joining non-disabled sports.

“I’m a proud Paralympian, through and through,” said Wallace, 26, who finished fifth with a time of 11.16 seconds in Rio. “There’s great media” attention on Paralympians trying to compete in the Olympics, he said, “and it’s a great thing for a Paralympian sport, but as a Paralympic athlete I should have pride in being a Paralympian. I’m an athlete with physical disabilities.”

Keita Sato, a 25-year-old single-amputee sprinter who clinched the bronze medal in the men’s 4×100-meter relay at Rio, says he faces a lot of questions about prosthetics from reporters these days. Since switching to Xiborg blades in March, he has steadfastly trimmed his 100-meter records, finishing at 11.77 at Rio, renewing his own Japan record. His goal is to break the 11-second barrier.

He adds that he is not bothered by all the attention his blade gets, noting that, if disabled athletes beat their non-disabled counterparts, it would fundamentally change the public’s perception of not only para sport but also disability as a whole.

“I think the impact of such an event would be significant,” said Sato, who lost his right leg below the knee as a teenager due to a rare type of cancer called Ewing’s sarcoma.

“The reason I want to run faster than 11 seconds is also because I want to create such an impact. Many people think that people with disabilities could never outperform able-bodied people. But if they do, people will start questioning what it means to be disabled.”

Xiborg’s Endo, meanwhile, has analyzed Sato’s stellar performance over the past year, and determined that the most important factor is Sato himself. Sato, who used to be an employee of Chukyo University in Aichi Prefecture and practiced only after work, switched employers to Toyota Motor Corp. in April and has a much better training environment, Endo says, noting that he’s now much more committed and disciplined as an athlete. One-on-one coaching provided by former Olympic hurdler Dai Tamesue, who is co-founder of Xiborg, has also helped.

In fact, technological innovations aside, the training environment makes a huge difference for athletes with disabilities just as it does for able-bodied athletes, and Japan has a lot to improve in this regard over the next three years, experts say.

Kunio Nakamori, secretary general of Japanese Paralympic Committee, said Japan lags behind many other countries in the promotion of para sport, as it has long been considered as a welfare policy issue, resulting in a lack of long-term planning.

It was only in April 2014 when the jurisdiction of the Japanese Para-sports Association (JPSA), the parent body of the JPC, was moved from the welfare ministry to the sports and education ministry, he said.

“European countries started integrating para sport into the overall sports promotion policy in around 2000, which helped boost the competitive standards of Paralympics,” Nakamori said.

The Paralympics have come a long way from being an extension of rehabilitative programs to an elite sporting event since German-born British neurologist Ludwig Guttmann (1899-1980) introduced wheelchair sports to soldiers left disabled by WWII. Guttmann, who set up a spinal cord injury unit at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in the U.K. after the war, believed that sports would be a great way for injured soldiers to regain not only their physical strength but also their self-respect.

He organized the first Stoke Mandeville Games for ex-members of British forces in 1948, which eventually evolved into the Paralympics.

The first Paralympic Games were held in Rome, alongside the Olympics, in 1960.

The number of participating athletes and countries, as well as the number of events held, has grown since then, but the Games always remained somewhat low-key and removed from the Olympics, Nakamori says.

That changed in 2001, when the IPC and the IOC agreed to enforce the “one bid, one city” rule from the 2008 Games onward, meaning that the same city must host both the Olympic and Paralympic Games, and that the Paralympics will always take place shortly after the Olympics using the same venues and facilities.

Japan, which has participated in the Paralympics since the second event was held in Tokyo in 1964, has struggled to keep up with changes in the Paralympic environment. For the Rio Games, the JPSA had set the goal of winning 10 gold medals and ranking 10th in the world.

While Team Japan clinched 24 medals at Rio, 1.5 times more than the number won in London four years earlier, it came home without winning a single gold medal.

JPSA, in its Nov. 25 statement reviewing Rio results, cited several factors for Japan’s poor performance, saying the nation needs to beef up its support for para-athletes, both physically and mentally, as well as its intelligence gathering on the gold-medal potential of other nations.

It also needs to prioritize giving wide-ranging support to those with the best chances of winning gold medals, such as doing scientific assessment of their physical examinations and securing adequate training venues and advice from a team of professionals including coaches, trainers and nutritionists.

But most importantly, Japan needs to increase sports opportunities for people with disabilities from the earliest possible stages, Nakamori stressed.

“Many children in wheelchairs or those who have lost their limbs or arms go to regular schools, where their sports education opportunities are limited. There are so many children in wheelchairs in Japan who have never played wheelchair basketball, a star para sport event. Some of them may find a wheelchair basketball club nearby, but that’s an extremely rare and lucky case.

“Beefing up the daily sports environment is crucial, and that’s what we need and want to focus on in the run-up to 2020.”

This New Year’s series examines how Japan is preparing for the Olympics and Paralympics.