Rio 2016 Paralympics Games: Sport and technology help people with disabilities overcome limits

by Otávio Clark | Sep 7, 2016

Daniel Dias was born with congenital malformation of the arms and right leg. He discovered sport at 16 and today is the greatest Brazilian medalist with 10 gold, four silver and one bronze medals won at the Beijing 2008 and London 2012 Paralympics Games, as well as 14 titles and six world records. Terezinha Guilhermina has a congenital disability and lost her vision. She used sport as a form of rehabilitation and is now considered the fastest blind woman in the world – she broke the world record in the 100-meter sprint and won the gold medal in the London 2012 Paralympics Games. Natalia Mayara was hit by a bus when he was only 2 years old and had her two legs amputated. Sport was essential to her recovery, and today she has accumulated several national and South American titles in wheelchairs tennis and is the current Parapan-American champion.

These are just three of the many stories of how sport can help not only the rehabilitation of people with disabilities but also help improve quality of life and overcome physical limits. These three athletes will represent Brazil in the Paralympic Games that will take place Sept.7-18 in Rio de Janeiro. For over 10 days of competition, Rio de Janeiro will host 4,350 athletes from 178 countries competing in 23 sports.

Athletes with visual or mental disabilities, cerebral palsy or neurological impairment; amputees; and users of wheelchairs can participate in different categories – and in different functional classifications – of the Paralympic Games. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), disability is an umbrella term covering disability, limitation of activity and restriction of participation in any activity. “Disability is not only a health issue. It is a complex phenomenon involving the interaction of people with their bodies and society, overcoming limits and gaining acceptance,” says Luciana Clark, Scientific Communication Director of Evidências - Kantar Health.

According to WHO, more than 1 billion people – or one in seven people worldwide – have some kind of disability. In Brazil, 23.9% of the population (over 45 million people) has at least one of the four surveyed deficiencies (visual, auditory, motor or intellectual), according to the 2010 census conducted by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE). “If we consider only the motor and intellectual disabilities, 8.4% of Brazilians, or 16 million people, are affected,” Clark says.

Overcoming limits through sport

For people with disabilities, sport can help – a lot – not only in rehabilitation but also in quality of life. Sport promotes social integration, helping the individual rediscover that it is possible, despite physical limitations, to have a healthy life and make friends.

“The medical literature shows that physical activity and sport bring many benefits in the psychological, social and physical levels for the general population and especially for patients with physical or mental disabilities,” Clark says. “Among the benefits found are improved aerobic capacity, reduced cardiovascular risk, lower incidence of infections, medical complications and hospitalizations as well as improved self-esteem, independence and socialization.”


Sport can also indirectly help people with disabilities: in the development of new technologies.

Millions of people worldwide rely on orthotics, prosthetics, wheelchairs and other devices to improve their quality of life. WHO estimates that about 65 million people use wheelchairs worldwide. However, current technology does not allow these people to have full independence or comfort: wheelchairs can’t climb stairs, and arm prostheses can’t simulate all hand movements. To make this technology move forward, it takes a lot of study and investment, and that is how sports can contribute.

Besides improving performance, technology aims to make the user more comfortable and yield the maximum results in competitions while still allowing users to perform daily activities. This is the case of the prostheses named “blade runners,” which are made of carbon fiber and mimic the action of the ankle during a race while compressing against the ground and storing kinetic energy released by the athlete at the time of decompression of the blade. For athletes with leg amputations above the knee, there is a way to maintain the natural movement of the legs through mechanical knees where small cylinders, which operate by a hydraulic base, provide stability and minimize energy loss, ensuring that the entire force generated by the athlete is employed in a push – which helps in the long jump, for example. In the case of wheelchairs, some manufacturers even test their speed and resistance in wind tunnels, leading to improvement of their aerodynamics, weight and even comfort.

These major innovations are developed for sport, and the most extreme situations happen in big competitions like the Rio 2016 Paralympics Games. That is where these technologies are put to the test and those that prove beneficial can be adapted for everyday prostheses and built for non-athletes. Today, carbon fiber feet can be used in everyday life with a less “aggressive” design than that used by the athletes. And all of these technological advances, coupled with sport, can do much to improve the quality of life of people with disabilities.

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