In this episode, I speak with Dr Bryce Dyer to understand the role technology plays in Parasport performance.
We consider how technology has developed from crude pieces of technology to sophisticated, state of the art equipment. The disparity in technology between richer and poorer nations is appraised, including how this impacts their Paralympic performance. We discuss, at length, the cases of Markus Rehm and Oscar Pistorius, evaluating the role and influence of technology on their performances. Finally, Dr Dyer explains what gold standard technology in Parasport means to him.
Listen to this episode if you want to get a detailed insight about the role and importance of technology in Parasport.
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High-Performance Sport: Technology in Parasport
Speaker: Dr Christopher Brown (Presenter – University of Hertfordshire, UK)
Speaker: Dr Bryce Dyer (Participant – Associate Professor and Deputy Head Of Department Design and Engineering, Bournemouth University, UK)
[00:00:29] Dr Christopher Brown: Hello, Listener. Welcome to another episode of the Disability Sport Info show. Today, what we're going to be focusing on is technology and innovation in Parasport. I'm delighted to be joined by Dr. Bryce Dyer, who is Associate Professor in Product Development within the Design & Engineering department at Bournemouth university. So, it's really great to have Bryce's expertise on the show. I think, Bryce, to start off, what role does technology and innovation have in Paralympic sport?
[00:00:57] Dr Bryce Dyer: Primarily, the point of technology, originally, was to help facilitate or help a sport take place. So it might be, you know, a wheelchair to provide mobility or a prosthetic limb to allow someone to walk or run. But to be honest with you, over the last 10, 20 years, that has started to change with some countries and some teams, where it's now become a basis for targeting performance and high levels of performance with that technology. So you're starting to get a fracture really from those who are just trying to engage with a sport and do a sport, and those who are trying to, what I would say, look for all the margins and excel at a sport; it's quite a dramatic shift in the last 10 years.
[00:01:35] Dr Christopher Brown: And in terms of that distinction, those maybe who are looking for the marginal gains. Um, so, you know, there's kind of one or 2% that make a difference to performance versus those who are just using technology to help facilitate activity and participation. How does it differ in terms of countries around the world?
Is there a geographic split? Is it anything to do with wealth? Heritage within the Paralympic Games? What kind of split between those distinctions are there for countries around the world?
[00:02:02] Dr Bryce Dyer: The split varies almost in the same way as it would do with able-bodied sports.
So often it's primarily to do with how successful a sport is in a given nation. You know, how many medals do they win? How successful are the athletes? But the difference with disability sport, is it can vary a lot by geography based on infrastructure, support, and what's actually available. So if you take, for example, we're obviously in Europe, we've got quite good supply chains to all the main manufacturers of equipment or assistive technologies we call it, that will be used by such athletes.
But if you're in a different country, that's further away, more isolated, then even though you might have good athletes, they still might not be getting good results because the technology, the assistive tech they need to perform a sport, may be substandard and then holding them back. So it's as much about sociological impact and economical impact as it is actually about raw athletic ability that you would normally see in able-bodied sport, for example.
[00:02:56] Dr Christopher Brown: Are there certain sports that are more prone to the use of assistive technology than others in a parasport context?
[00:03:03] Dr Bryce Dyer: Again, it varies. The easiest way to look at that is really when someone listens to this podcast probably will be able to think of disability sport, there will certain sports that probably pop into their head. And often those ones that pop into the head are the more visible ones. And they're often those that are actually the better supported ones.
So, track athletics, track and field for example. Obviously very, very visible with a lot of the athletes we've had there. And they're arguably seeing the most development with the technology that those athletes are using. There are other sports that might be newer to the Paralympic Games programme.
Or newer generally, or don't have very good infrastructure in any given country, you know, the number of participations or participants, sorry, is quite low. They'll obviously not have as much development done and obviously not be doing quite so well yet, but that can change. It only takes a good athlete or a significant performance to suddenly highlight and showcase a whole sport.
And then innovation can come quite rapidly along with that when that happens.
[00:03:55] Dr Christopher Brown: Okay. And in terms of the uses of assistive technology or innovation, so off the top of my head I've got, you know, an idea of a prosthesis for an amputee, a wheelchair racer. They're the kind of obvious ones that I think of, but what maybe are not as obvious to the listener, you know, in terms of the use of technology.
And you hinted at some of that just a minute ago. Are you able to provide some examples of how, maybe when we don't even realise it, technology is playing a role in sport?
[00:04:24] Dr Bryce Dyer: As spectators, we're often focused on the big events, on the big days, but actually a lot of the technology that the athletes will be using will take place only as a training tool.
It might be something that we as spectators never see. So for example, it could be different types of prosthetic limb that allows them to do different kinds of activity. You know, cross-training, for example. You know, they might be in the gym, they might be on the track. There's that. There's digital technologies that, biomechanical analysis, for example, motion capture analysis.
A lot of this does crossover with able-bodied stuff. To be honest with you, it's less about the technology, and more about the expertise that's wielding that technology, the tools that are available, to make sure that the athlete's properly supported and can do the best job they can do when it matters.
And again, as I mentioned at the start, is where we have started to go through quite a significant transformation of disability sport from, essentially, just getting athletes with some form of impairment or disability to engage with the sport, to now actually, in many cases, thinking, okay, this is just an athlete. The disability is almost irrelevant. These are the limitations that the athlete might have. So, what can we do to get them from point A to point Z to the best possible performance that we can get? And for us in the UK, for me personally, that really started to change with London 2012, where we started to see some sports and some athletes, really start to transcend their sport and enter social consciousness. So, the average man or woman in the high street can name an athlete with a disability. Whether it's an Ellie Simmons, or whether it's, you know, an Oscar Pistorius or a Marcus Rehm, whatever it is.
There athletes have that ability to now transcend their sport, and that was unheard of 20 or 30 years ago. So, again, major changes in both the way that we use technology, the way that the athlete is married to that technology, and then excels using that technology.
[00:06:08] Dr Christopher Brown: Okay. How does it get designed and made? From a layperson's perspective, it's not like you can just go to a high street as you say and just go purchase one. What is the process that is involved? I mean, that may sound like a very simple question to the listener, but actually might be very complex as an expert in the field, but how does it get made?
[00:06:26] Dr Bryce Dyer: My initial reaction was, I laughed there and the reason I laugh was because it is generally utter chaos for many of us that are in this field! What often typically happens is, as you quite rightfully said there, there's no off the shelf solutions here. Even two athletes with the same type of physical impairment will need to be handled and treated and supported completely differently from each other.
It might be that the physical problems they get using technology has a time limit. So for example, someone using a prosthetic limb might be great to run a 400, but by the time they run five or six heats of a 400 metre or they're, or they might be doubling up in distance doing 100, 200 and 400 metre on the track, for example, they might get more damage than other athletes. So when you design such technology, you have to be really, really aware of the individual's constraints, abilities, needs. And they're quite hard to work with, because the great thing about athletes is that they know how to get the best out of themselves, but sometimes they can do it to quite significant levels of pain and self-torture to get there, because athletes have the ability to really take themselves beyond our perceived limits many times.
But in terms of how it's actually designed, often these things for me have been thrown together because there's been a lack of expertise. I've had a cold call out of the blue, you know, there might be someone saying, look, I really need help. I wanna do this, that, and the other. It might be because they've got no support, there's little money, or they have got money and support in the form of a prosthetist or a medical practitioner. But the problems that a lot of practitioners or clinical practitioners lack, is the ability to understand elite-level sport. Paralympic games sort of level sport. So they can design the technology, but they don't know how to really refine it. And as you said earlier, those marginal gains or those little jumps in performance, they don't know what they are. So when I've been involved in these projects in the past, I often end up being almost a sort of a mediator or a negotiator between the clinical practitioner and the athlete. And the three of us, those sort of three different types of people. Me being the product designer or engineer, the athlete on the other side and the clinical sort of practitioner the other bit, we all form, essentially, a holistic team of trying to get the right thing. But that will vary again based on the sport.
So, whether it's a prosthetic limb for a track and field athlete or a wheelchair, another type of athlete. A lot of this technology is designed very ad-hoc. It's often modified. Sometimes quite crudely. And for those that aren't aware, when you have an athlete go to a games like the Paralympics, there's a whole support crew there.
They're often gaffer taping and bolting together, broken technology that the athletes physically destroy over the course of the two-week programme. Such is the demands placed upon them. So, it's really a whole life cycle here of developing the technology, maintaining that technology as the athlete uses it, and sometimes repairing it because this stuff can be expensive and it might have to last a while.
So sometimes you do have to literally gaffer tape, glue, and bond stuff back together again. It just depends.
[00:09:11] Dr Christopher Brown: When do the athletes actually first start to utilise technology? Because when they're playing a grassroots perspective, their wheelchair user, they'll have their wheelchair, but it won't be obviously the same spec as what they would have at the Paralympics. That must be quite tricky for some of the athletes to adapt to in the first instance?
[00:09:26] Dr Bryce Dyer: Yeah, and I think also it also depends on what country you're in, because some of the national governing bodies are better, I think, at supporting athletes through the journey. And now in the UK, we've obviously got the lottery programmes. So, we're better financed than most.
And that does allow someone that shows potentially at a reasonably young age to be appropriately supported right the way through their journey, possibly to, you know, Paralympic level, for some time. If you take someone like a Jody Cundy, who's done track cycling for, well, you know, you're coming up for 15, 20 years in his case, at a Paralympic Games level. That's someone that's had good care. And he transitioned from swimming initially as well. So that's someone that's had good levels of support.
But in other countries, and in fact some of the projects I've probably done the most with, and the projects I'm working on now, that's a country that's got poor infrastructure, poor technological support, poor academic support, because a lot of the advances that are made aren't always by practitioners, it's by academics as well. And trying to get that information, that knowledge to the right people is often most of the battle actually. And it's having that, the ability to, podcasts like this, to exchange information and ideas around, is absolutely critical, now, to getting the best out of athletes or people who just want to improve their ability to enjoy exercise and the wellbeing, you know, that comes with that.
[00:10:40] Dr Christopher Brown: Thanks for the promotion of the podcast! Always appreciate it. So yeah, absolutely critical. Not my words, Bryce's! So, you touched upon it there just a minute ago about finance and, you know, we can't get away from the fact that it's probably not our level playing field, is it? You know, so, we've got nations, and this is a wider issue in the Paralympic Games, anyway, but there is disparity between the richer nations and the poorer nations, and that obviously is across sport, anyway. But do you think it's exacerbated in the Paralympic Games, where technology maybe plays a bigger role than, perhaps, in the Olympics, for the poorer nations, who just don't have the finance to be able to compete?
[00:11:14] Dr Bryce Dyer: Yeah. I mean, the short answer there is yes, you're absolutely right. Again, it isn't just about the cost of the technology, it's also about access to the information to support that technology to help develop it, and all the rest of it. Supply chain issues as well. But yeah, it's worse with, I would say, disability support because the nature of the products or the technology they use is so specialised, which means it's inherently, like a lot of medical devices, quite expensive.
It can be broken relatively easily, if it's a relatively inferior product, because sometimes people are just trying to undertake a sport of physical activity. And sometimes it can mean that the solutions are quite crude, and not as durable as they possibly would be, if it was a more broad-based consumer product that's made in their thousands, like a motor vehicle for example, or a, you know, a laptop computer.
The level playing field is a real issue. And I have kind of two sides of the coin, personally with. One is that I often develop the technology that's trying to push the rule margins. I, you know, I openly concede that I'll often look at the rule books. I'll see where the opportunities are, and I'll try and help an athlete to exploit that, legally, but to the very line that, that it can be taken.
But then the other side of my interest, is I'll often be working on working groups or in governing bodies to try and write the rules to stop people like me from doing exactly that. So, I'm kind of conflicted with myself. The playing field has never been level in sport and I think it's naive to assume that that's attainable.
But the idea here is to try and reduce the tilt, is how I explain it to people a little bit. Because, particularly in Paralympic sport, the difference between an athlete from a reasonably poorly supported country, like, I dunno for the sake of argument, Ghana. And then compare someone like the UK that's got world-class lottery funding and a relatively large and blank cheque book, sometimes, with certain athletes in certain sports. That's really hard to rationalise. One of the lectures I often give to my students, is there's a photo I've got that was taken, I think back in 1996, and it shows a start line of a hundred meter sprint race for some athletes with amputations and limb absence.
What was poignant about the photograph is that at one end of the photograph, you can see someone that's literally running with a peg leg. I mean, it's a very crude, wooden, or, you know, glass reinforced plastic based peg leg, essentially. Right the way through to stuff that you might get from a local hospital that's got a degree of fiberglass there and rubber and more modern materials.
And then over on the far right-hand side, there's carbon fiber and it's the cheetah leg style thing we're now very familiar with, and that's in one photo taken in 1996. There's no way that an athlete on the far left there can hope to compete with an athlete on the far right, because of the technology they've got.
And, unlike other sports that we have, where the difference between haves and have nots is much narrower, particularly in able-bodied sport, with paralympic sport, it is a real issue and it nearly always comes down to cost or access to information and knowledge.
[00:14:01] Dr Christopher Brown: Yeah. A really interesting point.
And also, you know, finance is finite for those countries investing in sport and let's be realistic, Paralympic sport will get less money than Olympic sport. So already, you know, you're gonna have less money to play with. Even in the UK, you know, the Paralympics will have, you know, X amount of money, but it'd be less compared to the Olympics. And so if you extrapolate that to other nations, where there's a smaller pot of money, then it's even harder for the Paralympic sports in those countries, because they have even less money. And we know finance is really important, of course, for elite sports. So yeah. I think that's a really good point.
But also the information and access to information. I think that's a really important point you made there too.
I was reading an article on The Conversation, talking about how some of the assistive technology are made. And they were talking about 3D printing. And how that is being increasingly used, and also is a potential way to reduce that inequality gap.
What are your thoughts about 3D printing and its use in sport now?
[00:14:57] Dr Bryce Dyer: It's becoming an increasingly affordable technology to the extent now that I've got sort of 18 year-old engineering students buying their own printers and having them in their bedrooms. You can buy a printer for, you know, a couple hundred pounds sterling, you know, right the way through to those at hundred thousands pounds and quite advanced.
And we can print stuff in literally any material. Carbon fiber, long and short strand plastics, ceramics, and then more traditional sort of 3D printing polymers. So, yes, it has come down in cost.
The advantages are that you can make it bespoke, you can scan an athlete in. And a project I worked with at the last Games, we did exactly that, where we scanned in, I was doing a prosthetic limb for someone with an upper arm impairment.
So they had an amputation just above the elbow. And we were doing a cycling prosthesis for them to ride their bike. So we scanned in their body and then we could then design a prosthetic limb that would fit them exactly. And in that particular case, the athlete was a track cyclist who was competing in the mainly in what we call the individual pursuit.
So that's two riders on a track racing up a three, four kilometres trying to chase each other down as they go round and round for 16 laps. So we were able to design a pathetic limb that was aerodynamically efficient and looked pretty cool. It looked so cool it wasn't allowed to be used; it was pretty advanced looking and pretty funky.
It does allow us to create prototypes considerably quicker. And I'll give you a practical example of this. When I first started doing these kind of projects back in, I think it was 2011 for the 2012 Games, that took us three or four months to do a prosthetic limb to make it. It was made quite crudely. So the way that prosthetic limbs were typically made then was you'd make a shape of it out of what you'd see as foam. You then lay carbon fiber over the top and that's pretty much it. That's after it's been fitted to the athlete. The socket their limbs slot into as fit as much it doesn't rub. So it takes quite a lot of skill on the behaviour of the prosthetist to get it to fit well, be comfortable, and look right. But, if you get it wrong, you've essentially gotta make the whole thing again, and repeat the process again. But with 3D printing, a correction can take seconds. We can print something out overnight. You know, I could hit space bar or return key now. By the time I go into work tomorrow, there'd be something there waiting to go. We can then test that on the athlete, try it. If it works, we can then progress it back to the prosthetist to then do a final design out of carbon fiber that's all singing and all dancing.
So, yes, it has reduced the costs but, as anything, it's just a tool. And again, you need that expertise using it.
3D printing is next big thing, but it is just a tool. It's just like a ruler, just a very expensive one.
[00:17:23] Dr Christopher Brown: Like you said, it is a tool and, as you mentioned earlier, you need to make it specific to that athlete.
You know, because an athlete's requirements are gonna differ. So yes, the 3D printing obviously helps you to facilitate maybe quicker production. And maybe easier production. But ultimately, you've still gotta take the time to make sure it fits that particular individual and their experiences.
[00:17:44] Dr Bryce Dyer: Yeah, and that's actually critical with the sport, in particular, because what you find is a lot of assisted technology at the moment is developed in a clinical setting. Which is fine, but the way that an athlete behaves when they're at a race pace, for example, when they're in an event or they're actual physical behaviour, is very different in the event to what it is in a clinical setting.
And something I learned very quickly is that often we develop technology or design technology, it would look great in the lab and then as soon as the athlete uses it, they start getting discomfort or scarring, or other ancillary problems, because we weren't essentially testing them in situ the way they need to be tested.
And again, one of the piece advice when I'm advising other people that are doing this, it's always to get information and knowledge from the athlete in the setting they're gonna be training and racing under, and at the intensity they intend to use at. And it's very difficult to simulate that in a clinical setting.
[00:18:36] Dr Christopher Brown: You hinted earlier that you have two hats, essentially. One to push the margins and one to keep the margins in place for performance. So again, very big question to answer, but to what extent does technology aid an athlete's performance? Because listeners may be familiar with the case of Markus Rehm, the long jumper, who did try to get into the Rio 2016 Olympics. Now, his jumps would've potentially given an opportunity to medal in the Olympics. I think actually his best jump might have beaten Greg Rutherford's, from memory, I think. But there was a reluctance to include him because there was an argument that his prosthesis gave him too much of an unfair advantage. Like it was too much of a skew towards technology rather than his physical abilities. And he was saying, well, if it's that good, why aren't other long jumpers in my field jumping the same kind of jumps as myself? And they weren't. So, could you explain why that ruling was made? So why was it deemed that the technology was giving him too much advantage? And how do we stay within the acceptable boundaries between technology providing these fantastic spectacles, or skewing performance?
[00:19:39] Dr Bryce Dyer: We'll deal with the functional bit first and the philosophical bit second. In terms of Rehm's case, the critical thing with Rehm was, was that he was launching essentially from his prosthetic limb. Now, people will say, well, that's wrong. I don't normally look at it that way. What I normally say is it's different. And it's the same as when we talk about things like Alan Oliveira in the past, the runner, or Oscar Pistorius. The way to look at these people is locomotively, the way they move and run is just inherently different to the way that someone who's able bodied is. It's not always about did they have an advantage or not, because they actually have quite a few disadvantages as well. So for example, a long jump is all about, arguably in the distance, in the time that you have before you launch, you've gotta get to be as moving as quickly as you can. You need the highest peak velocity, essentially. Now, with a prosthetic limb, that is difficult, because for a start, as soon as you start running, a prosthetic limb squashes downwards; it doesn't propel you forwards.
It actually just squashes and you go nowhere. It's one of the reasons why someone like Oscar Pistorius, when he was still running, was notorious for having poor starts, because what would happen is he'd launch himself and he'd just squat. And then he'd get moved forwards. So that's one of the disadvantages that Rehm's got.
Once he then gets up to speed, he's then got the problem that his left leg and his right leg aren't actually behaving the same way as each other, because they're both essentially different. One has a stiffness. So the way that we compress it. When things are stiff, if it's the same material, what should happen, arguably, is that you can almost draw a, it's what we call Hooke's law. It's a graph whereby you add some force or a weight to something, it will compress in a straight line; it has a direct proportional effect. But our human bodies don't work logically that way. Our ankles and our knee joints create stiffness of the leg, and they don't necessarily do at an even rate, and they don't necessarily all do it at the same time and in the same sequence.
So someone who's a unilateral amputee like Rehm was, he again, is at a disadvantage because he's got an imbalance, leg to leg as he's trying to sprint. However, when he gets to the take-off board, he then chooses to launch from his prosthetic limb. That means really than, rather than worrying about all that fatigue that he's generated between when he started running and when he launched, he's then using something that doesn't fatigue.
He's then actually essentially launching from that prosthetic limb, and that was what most of the uproar was about. The argument being, why don't you just take off the other leg? Now for reasons I don't know and I wouldn't have been privy to, I dunno if Rehm ever tried that to reduce the criticism he was getting, or why he didn't feel that was the right way to go.
But the reality was he was taking off using his, essentially, manmade technology. And I think for most people in the governing bodies, that was just a step too far. But as I say, it isn't just he was advantaged. I think that's a very naive or negative way to look at him. You've just got to, essentially, when an athlete is trying to cross over from Paralympic to Olympic sport, they're essentially different.
And that is very hard to regulate and measure. So that's the first bit.
The philosophical bit is where it gets really muddy because unfortunately it doesn't matter how many guests you have on your show, you're never gonna get the same answer to that question. It is incredibly subjective, it's incredibly emotive, and it's incredibly easy to upset a lot of people because it's a very, as you all know better than I would do, disability can be a very personal thing.
You're dealing with a lot of athletes that sometimes have gone through quite extreme levels of trauma or personal events to get to where they have. And when you're suddenly telling an athlete they can't do something at the end of it with all the hard work they've put in, that isn't necessarily a great outcome for anyone, neither for the athlete, nor for the sport as a whole.
Knowing where these limits are, though, is important, because it kind of goes back to what you were saying at the start in that, cost, access and safety are three pretty big cornerstones pieces of whether a technology should be seen as acceptable or not in a sport. And we always have to, within that sports governance area, have to remain vigilant of that because, if you don't respect those cornerstones, then essentially, you'll lose control of the sport, and you end up with the sport where no one wants to compete anymore because they just don't feel they can compete.
Cost is always the most obvious one, particularly with Paralympic sport, as you've quite rightly pointed out. But access, as I say, and even safety, using technology that is effective, but unsafe, in the wrong hands, can cause a lot of problems.
Whilst I quite openly say that there will never be a level playing field. It just doesn't exist. But we've got to try and keep that tilt to a reasonable level, so that athletes are entering the sport, looking to progress through the sport, and excel at the sport. And that it is as accessible as we can make it, so they can get into it. And that's where the ethical debates take place of what is and isn't appropriate. That's where it gets fun!
[00:24:11] Dr Christopher Brown: You've navigated some tricky questions quite expertly and adroitly there, so, well done for navigating that minefield.
Now, for the uninitiated and potentially naive, so why was Oscar Pistorius enabled and allowed to compete at the Olympics in 2012, but Markus Rehm was not at the Rio Olympics? What was the key difference between these athletes? There is one obvious one, difference in the use of prosthesis, clearly. Different event. The point you made about Rehm taking off with the use of his prosthesis, is quite important. Now, a cynic, which I'm not necessarily saying I am, but would say that Pistorius was never gonna meddle in the 400 meters individually. His times weren't gonna get him to the position where he was gonna meddle. Rehm could have meddled at the Olympics. Now, you can't say whether or not it made a, you know, definitive difference or not, but why, from a technological perspective, was Pistorius enabled to compete, but Rehm was not?
[00:25:10] Dr Bryce Dyer: It's a really good question, actually. I wish I thought of that one before. The key thing with Pistorius was that, for those that are listening to this and aren't familiar with Pistorius's case, he was essentially trying to crossover from the Paralympics to the Olympics.
He then was told that he couldn't, so he commissioned some research for a start, to try and prove that he didn't have a technological advantage. That's pretty key for a start. Rehm didn't do that, or at least not to the same level.
We're going back to 2008, 2009 now, it is very widely publicised. It was very much at the forefront in the media about what was going on with this. It was a very high profile case. So there was research that was conducted at the behest of the IAAF at the time or World Athletics, I guess as they are now, that commissioned the research, to try and find out what the actual situation was, because at that point, research was really scant.
I started my PhD, my first PhD in this area, around a similar time. And, you know, your lit review, the journals you're trying to read about, were very few in number because there just wasn't information out there. So, the governing body and the athlete themselves both commissioned their own research to try and find out what was going on.
Now, like a lot of research and a lot of scientists might be aware of, sometimes it's not what you do, but it's how you do it. And funnily enough, both parties managed to, you know, advocate and answer, that showed that the athlete either had an advantage or didn't have an advantage, depending on which side you wanted it to fall.
What they worked out in Pistorius's case, though, was really that they got an agreement from him that he wouldn't use any prosthetics. They wanted him to use the same prosthetic limbs all of the time moving forwards. They wouldn't allow him to use any newer designs in the future. So they'd draw a line under it.
And the other difference was as well, was that they conceded that he had disadvantages as well as advantages as we were just talking about with Rehm's case a moment ago. And I think, to be honest with you, it was an unworkable problem in that, it was becoming very blurred in that, were you trying to, essentially, outlaw a type of athlete or just outlaw the athlete, you know, personally? And it was starting to become a bit like a witch hunt, I think from the media's point of view, that they were targeting Pistorius. Whereas actually in reality, from what I knew at the time, what they were more concerned with was they weren't actually really that worried about Pistorius. They were more probably concerned with what athlete would come next, because Pistorius inspired dozens of athletes to engage with sport with a disability. Which is great. It's exactly what you want from a, you know, a role model or a great athlete to inspire the next generation. Sooner or later, someone was gonna come along that was gonna be faster, that was gonna be competitive, and whilst Pistorius's times were erratic in the 400, it was highly possible that, as an athlete would race longer and longer distances, if we take the marathon, for example, the actual disadvantages there are actually quite few, and you can really start to play on the mechanics of the prosthetics there. Optimise them to such extent that I honestly believe that they would outperform an able-bodied athlete, if the race was long enough. And if the conditions were dry, something else Pistorius had a problem with was that he often slipped out of his lane if it was damp, because they had quite bad traction.
[00:28:01] Dr Christopher Brown: And would that be viewed as negative, then? So it's acceptable for an able-bodied athlete to outcompete a disabled athlete.
But then, when we're flipping it, it suddenly becomes more problematic. Why is that the case?
[00:28:12] Dr Bryce Dyer: I think the argument really here is you need to evaluate each and every circumstance based on the context of each specific sport and type of athlete you are trying to take across to able-bodied sport. Because, irrespective whether you believe the research that Pistorius commissioned or that the IAAF commissioned, the reality that both of them agreed on was that the form of locomotion was different. Now there is a philosophical question that it says, well, isn't difference what makes us all human, essentially? At the end of the day, that's where it starts getting really deep. But the problem was it was so different. You're almost comparing pedalling a bicycle with riding a motorbike or you know, it was just completely different, mechanically. So extremely different, that it was hard to rationalise it.
Now, in Rehm's case, a few years later, the problem was inherently that he was taking off from his prosthetic leg. If he'd actually switched over, he would've been allowed to, I think, go to the Games. Now, would he have been competitive? We'll, never know how competitive he wouldn't or wouldn't have been. But had he at least done that, I think from his point of view, he would've been quite heavily penalised, because he would've had all the disadvantages of the run up, and none of the advantages of the take-off.
But I think, from a sporting political point of view, and I think from an ethical point of view, in many cases that would've been deemed acceptable. But he was quite, well, this is the leg I wanna take off of.
I mean, there's a condition we call laterality, and to explain that, if anyone is listening to this podcast, you would probably notice that when you walk upstairs, you always put the same leading leg forwards.
Yeah. You know, it might be you favour your left or your right. Now, what probably happened in Rehm's case was, quite honestly, that the leg that he would choose to launch himself or go upstairs or launch from in a long jump, probably was his favoured leg. The fact that it happened to be the one that his prosthetic was attached to was just coincidence. Just one of those things. The fact that someone hasn't got that leg there doesn't mean that those, you know, the connections between mind and body somehow change. No, they don't. So quite honestly, it was just the way he wanted to take off. I don't honestly think he was trying to gain a technological advantage, but the problem is the optics of that, from outside of the sport, don't look great. And when I think a sport sees that the technology is being pushed that much, I think that's when they're gonna clamp down no matter how positive or optimistic the athlete is trying to be with their sport. And I think those difference in optics really is what separates the two cases.
But the reality is, at the end of the day, we just knew so little back then, and it's taking time for science and clinical practice to keep up with the ethics and the, and what happens in the sport. Often the technology comes out first, and then we all have to race as academics or as technologists to try and work out, one, is it appropriate? And two, what is it even doing anyway?
[00:30:47] Dr Christopher Brown: Interesting. Thank you for providing those thoughts and more detail, and more detail and expertise there. That was really insightful.
Okay. So if we look to the next five years. So what, I dunno, 2027/2028, so we would've incorporated one or maybe two Paralympics, if we're including 2028.
What do you think will be the state of technology in Paralympics? So, when we get to LA in 2028, how will performance be impacted by the use of technology?
[00:31:14] Dr Bryce Dyer: Again, it will depend on the sport, but I think in some of the more major sports, I mean, we're still seeing times coming down in particular events quite quickly.
So as the technology improves, prosthetic limbs is an obvious one in track athletics. I know some of the work I've done with track cycling as well, the times are coming down quite rapidly, because when the technology's introduced into a sport, when a sport is relatively new. Bear in mind the Paralympic Games are still relatively young in their infancy in comparison to the Olympic Games. So you always see this rapid rise in performance and then eventually it sort of tapers off a bit and plateaus. So with certain sports, as we progress, we're still gonna see large chunks of times, I think, being carved in certain events, certain sporting disciplines, as we move to next Games.
Change in technology. As you mentioned, things like 3D printing, greater expertise in the knowledge base out there, better communications. Things like conferences, podcasts, TV programmes, multimedia. That's meaning now that people are getting access to information, or exposure to role models, that they probably wouldn't have got even as little as recently as 10 years ago. So again, that's gonna indirectly improve performance.
If I look back at the last, I've done equipment now for the last three or four Games. The biggest change that I've seen in that time has really been dealing with the nations who aren't actually well supported, that are trying to get hold of knowledge and support they can't conventionally access. So it's not so much that the top-end is improving. It's more so actually about the bottom-end catching up with those that are already doing quite well.
And I think that's something that we'll see a change of as more athletes, and more money essentially, gets pulled into the sport.
[00:32:54] Dr Christopher Brown: Interesting. Okay. And let's end on a kind of positive and expert note, I think. What does gold standard use of technology and innovation in Parasport look like?
So what is the thing that you would recommend to all your students, recommend to any kind of Paralympic Committee that wants you for your consultancy?
[00:33:11] Dr Bryce Dyer: I would say it's not a gold standard technology: it's a gold standard experience. What I mean by that is it's essentially creating a form of technology that allows an athlete to engage, initially with sport and physical activity, so they enjoy it, and can do more of it without fear of injury or discomfort. Or just being turned away from a sport because they can't do it. And then bringing them through that journey to allow them to then to excel and then, you know, succeed and then excel.
So when you often look at TV and you see, you know, carbon fiber prosthetic limb, that's actually the very end of that journey, essentially. That athlete has been through significant experience of going through crude technology, or developing technology, to get them to that point. But it is a journey, you know, holding hand in hand with technology from being very, very young.
The crucial thing here is, irrespective of whatever guys like me design, it's really about enjoying your sport, at the end of the day. Getting involved with sport, getting the most from sport, enjoying the camaraderie, the positive experience that it brings. Because if you have all that in place, and technology that we create supports that, then ultimately, irrespective of the end result, the athlete will be healthy, well, and will get the very best out of themselves, probably, at whatever environment that is. Whether it's, you know, the Paralympic games stadium or doing their local fun run, you know, over five kilometres or whatever sort of thing.
So it's the journey, not just the high technology destination. It's a gold standard experience.
[00:34:36] Dr Christopher Brown: Excellent. All right. It's been really interesting, really fascinating to chat to you about technology and innovation. I mean, I know very little detailed insights about this area, just kind of the casual viewer perspective.
So it's been really fantastic to get that insight and expertise. So thank you ever so much, Bryce, for taking the time to speak with me. I really do appreciate it.
[00:34:54] Dr Bryce Dyer: You're very welcome. No, thanks for having me on.
[00:34:56] Dr Christopher Brown: No, you're welcome. Thank you. Well, I look forward to catching up with you soon.
*** Discussion ends ***
[00:34:59] Dr Christopher Brown: That's it. That's all we have time for. Thanks for listening to another episode of The Disability Sport Info Show. Stay tuned for another episode. Until then, goodbye.
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