Advanced prosthetics are about to transform sport

August 29, 2012, 4:17 PM UTC

It has barely begun, but the 2012 Paralympics is already smashing records. For the first time in its 64-year history, tickets seemingly sold out while unprecedented levels of TV coverage worldwide promise to draw the biggest viewing audiences to date. But perhaps the record that has most people talking is the one already won by a certain Oscar Pistorius, the double amputee whose prosthetic legs have helped him become the first-ever athlete to compete in both the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Dubbed “the fastest man on no legs,” Pistorius’ story is shining the spotlight on the role of prosthetics in sport. The South African was almost banned from the Olympic games, not because of his disability, but because some thought his carbon-fiber blades helped him run faster than his able-bodied peers. An inquiry failed to prove the accusations and the ruling was overturned. But the sporting world was rocked, says Andy Miah, an Olympic Games expert and professor of ethics and emerging technologies at the University of the West of Scotland. “For the first time, the world saw a disabled athlete as having an advantage over his able-bodied competition,” he notes.

That’s not a scenario the Games organizers want to see repeated any time soon. So come August 29, even parathletes competing amongst themselves will have to adhere to strict guidelines on the prosthetics they use. Carbon fiber is fine, for instance. But rules laid down by the International Paralympics Committee (IPC) ban the use of any device that enhances the athletic performance through “machines, engines or robot mechanisms.” “The spirit of the Games is to test human ability against human ability,” explains Dr. Peter Van de Vliet, IPC Medical and Scientific Director.

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That makes many of the latest innovations in the prosthetic world Paralympic no-no’s. Some of the most advanced devices come close to emulating complex human functions, particularly joints. Leg systems with bionic ankles, like the one offered by Bedford, MA-based iWalk, use robotics to mimic missing muscles and sense when to adjust to changing terrain. Meanwhile the Genium, launched recently by Germany company Ottobock, features state-of-the-art microprocessors that sense the user’s gait over 100 times per second.

While light-weight carbon fiber is still best for sprinting, specialists think this new technology could help other paralympians. Geoff Harding, Prosthetics Business Manager at Ottobock, says the Genuim would be great in track and field events like the shot put. “It can lock at any angle so the athlete could lean back hard onto the leg and push against it,” he explains. By attaching the knee directly to living bone, using a process called osteo-integration, the leg almost becomes part of the user’s body. But for health and safety reasons, athletes who have undergone this process are also barred from the Games.

Soon, the IPC may have to add mind-controlled prosthetics to the banned list. Earlier this summer, a tetraplegic woman used her thoughts alone to make a robotic arm serve herself coffee for the first time in 15 years. Researchers in Boston, M.A. had implanted a tiny sensor in her brain — dubbed BrainGate — that bypassed the nerve circuits broken by the stroke to control the arm. The device is many years from commercial launch, but the scientists hope it will lead to technology that can restore independence to paralyzed people.

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In truth, these prosthetics are a long way from turning paralympians into superhumans. Current technology is still trying to emulate infinitely complex human movement, let alone surpass them. The industry is also relatively small and contains just a handful of players. Ottobock controls the lion’s share of a global business worth $865 million in 2012, according to research firm Global Data.

But industry experts reckon the tipping point will come. The market is growing, mostly because of generous government grants to help war veterans. And if they can restore a soldier’s strength, why not an athlete’s? From there, it’s a short step to a new kind of Olympics, says Miah. “In 30 years, I think we’ll see parathletes and athletes competing in the same games, with the integration of biology and technology helping them to lift more, run faster, and really push their bodies to the limit.”