From a physiology perspective, half of what the Paralympic athletes do should not really be possible.
There is a guy called Matt Stutzman from the USA and he has no arms. He’s an archer. And Siamand Rahman from Iran can lift 310kgs above his head, from a wheelchair. There are people who run full speed over 400m and can’t see a thing so have unyielding trust in a sighted running mate. And people without all their limbs can still swim in a straight line. Fast.
It is a puzzling truth that the Paralympics have historically attracted lower viewing numbers, however the Rio 2016 version appears to have swelled the fan base to record highs. Rio grandstands that were partially empty during the Summer Olympics a couple of weeks earlier appeared seething with punters keen to witness para-athletes doing their thing.
Perhaps it could be argued that as able-bodied sport grows in professionalism and funding, so too do some Paralympic sports and athletes, and it is strikingly obvious that there are Paralympians in stunning athletic form.
As examples of this, the winning time of the 1500m at the Rio Paralympics was famously faster than at the able-bodied event two weeks earlier, and most New Zealanders will recognise the name Neroli Fairhall, who beat the rest of able-bodied field from a wheelchair to win the Commonwealth Gold medal in archery in 1982. And if you watched any of the 7-aside football, you will have seen some moves Pele would have been proud in pulling off.
A documentary in 2012 about the Team GB Paralympians followed a breaststroke swimmer with Multiple Sclerosis. The motor skills on one whole side of her body were diminished to the point where she couldn’t pick anything up with that hand, yet when she swam breaststroke, imaging scans showed that her brain seamlessly mapped the movement pattern from one side of her body to the other. She was unable to swim freestyle being an alternating movement pattern, yet with breaststroke her brain found a way to mirror the pattern so successfully it resulted in a gold medal performance.
The Paralympic classification system seems a wieldy affair, with a little known fact that some classifications have to be continually reassessed as athlete’s conditions or the advancement of their disability means they would no longer be fighting fair. It is also a sad truth that the intellectual impairment classification was only recently reintroduced after members of the Spanish basketball team were found not to be intellectually impaired at the Paralympics in Barcelona in 1992. Really? Who would even do that?
For some of the sports, from a biomechanics point of view, it is fascinating to see the form modifications that enable a technical movement pattern to happen. It is also obvious how easily balance, timing, rhythm and power (the fundamentals of sport) are affected. In observing the high jump, a single arm visibly diminishes vertical power, while an inability to create a summation of forces in the shotput through using the legs to best effect leaves the arms with an awful lot to do.
It is hard to truly understand the frustration that a para-athlete must have to positively channel and turn it into a challenge. The challenge is to put together a movement process that works for the individual athlete and their unique level of mobility. To watch this in practice is utterly fascinating, and judging by recent viewer numbers for Rio 2016 Paralympics, an entertaining and inspiring sports spectacle.
The Paralympic flag was handed over to Tokyo for the second time in Rio. The previous Tokyo Olympics in 1964 was only the second time that the Paralympics were held following the Summer Olympics, and in 2020 they will do so again. It is perhaps likely that as sport advances, just as the number of women participating in the Summer Olympics has almost reached the 50 percent mark, the viewing and ticket sales of the Paralympics might just about even out. Now wouldn’t that be cool?
The Paralympics are not only a great show of individual athleticism, but an extraordinary example of just what the human body is capable of.
On one hand, it proves the body is an amazing machine that can adapt, modify and adjust movement patterns to make the physically challenging possible. On the other hand, it is extremely difficult not to have immense admiration for the human beings that figure out how to make it possible, including the coaches.
It also makes the modern scourge of diseases caused by inactivity such as obesity and diabetes in able-bodied people an absolute disgrace.
If the less able-bodied can figure out a way to not only move, but thoroughly excel at it, then any reason left for an able bodied person not to be active has to be thoroughly questioned.