Why wheelchair runners overtake Olympic distance runners – but sprinters not

In 2019, Eliud Kipchoge became the first non-disabled runner to complete a marathon in less than two hours. But wheelchair runners have crossed this barrier for decades: the official fastest wheelchair time was set in 1999 by Swiss driver Heinz Frei. How many minutes did he beat the barrier? Almost 40. Frei clocked in at 1:20:14. The fastest runner on the women’s side, Manuela Schär, also largely passed Kipchoge’s mark, clocking 1:35:42.

Like many parasports, athletics operates on a classification model, trying to place athletes with similar impairments – their speech, not mine – competing against each other. The T53 and T54 classifications, which host the two marathon record holders, are intended for athletes who use wheelchairs to compete but have limited trunk function, allowing a smoother transition of physical power during track flight. or on the road. An athlete in the T52 ranking, where hand function is also affected, also crossed the two-hour mark: Austria’s Thomas Geierspichler.

But the domination doesn’t stop there. On each Olympic distance of at least 800 meters, the fastest wheelchair athletes are ahead of the able-bodied.

So why are wheelchair athletes faster than their able-bodied counterparts over longer distances but not over shorter distances? Over shorter distances, a wheelchair is held back by the slowness with which it exits the proverbial gate. It takes longer to reach full speed than a runner blowing up blocks.

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But over longer distances, the retention of speed offered by high-tech chairs gives para-athletes their advantage. And the amount of conservation gained is affected by the equipment used and the regiments tracked. In the early years of most parasports, including track and field, there was little specialized equipment. Since then, wheelchairs have become lighter; athletes got bigger, faster and stronger; and the training methods used by parasport athletes, just like their able-bodied counterparts, have become more sophisticated. While much of the conversation about parasport equipment in track and field has focused on whether prosthetics create an unfair advantage for runners with disabilities, innovations in wheelchair divisions have been nothing short of revolutionary. .

A track chair has a handle set to the exact turn of the track, allowing rapid movement during a turn. With this predefined trajectory, a wheelchair runner can navigate the turn and maintain momentum, where an able-bodied athlete would experience a much greater drop in speed. BMW’s Brad Cracchiola, who designed the wheelchair used by 17-time Paralympic medalist Tatyana McFadden for the 2016 Games, described his process: “We designed it with the premise that a wheelchair is not. than a piece of equipment. It is an aerodynamic extension of the athlete’s body, an intimate part of himself. Put simply, McFadden’s carbon fiber chair isn’t just something she sits in when she stars in Nike commercials – it’s an integral part of her success.

There is a danger in most sports media in looking at the tools rather than the competitor, especially when it comes to parasport coverage. Just as an ordinary wheelchair is a conduit for independence rather than a confined collection of metal, a racing wheelchair is not what makes a track and field athlete great. Instead, the best para-athletes are those whose equipment works in concert with their bodies as one. We have to keep this in mind as the athletes take to the track this week in Tokyo for the Paralympics. With their chairs serving as extensions of themselves, they’ll be ready to set times that would have broken records just a month ago.

Olympians, surgeons and even toddlers have used this technique to improve their focus.

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