'We're Already at Era Where Prosthetics Can Outstrip Human Performance'

August 28, 2012 - 8:48 AM
Prosthetics could help disabled outdo Olympians

LONDON (AP) — Oscar Pistorius made history last month when he became the first double-amputee to compete at the Olympics.

While the South African "Blade Runner" didn't make the medals podium, it's probably only a matter of time before Pistorius or another disabled runner triumphs.

Many experts predict Paralympians soon will be outperforming their able-bodied counterparts, thanks in part to future improvements in prosthetics.

"We're already at the era where prosthetics can outstrip human performance," said David James of the Centre for Sports Engineering Research at Sheffield Hallam University. "With the developments being made in things like powered knees and ankle joints, athletes will soon be flying down the track.

"It's possible Paralympic athletes could one day run faster than Usain Bolt."

Bryce Dyer, an engineering design expert focusing on elite sport at Bournemouth University, said the breakthrough made by Pistorius will spur other disabled athletes to go even further, perhaps using more advanced prosthetics. Dyer added that it's up to sports federations to draw the line on where prosthetics enhance performance.

"The technology will only improve," he said.

The blades currently being used don't give Paralympic runners the same amount of energy able-bodied runners get from their legs — the athletes are powered only by their hamstrings or hip flexor muscles, as opposed to the additional power a runner gets from the thigh, calf and ankle.

"In the future, you might see nanotube technology that could produce the same structure as in a biological leg and give you the same amount of energy," said Philippa Oldham, head of manufacturing at the Institute of Mechanical Engineers. Oldham added that carbon fiber blades like the ones used by Pistorius don't offer any net advantage.

Still, it's unclear how much these high-tech prostheses will help ordinary people who need artificial limbs. Prosthetics in the Paralympics are the product of thousands of dollars of research and designed for a very specific purpose: improving sports performance. Their benefits may trickle down to the general population, but much of what is showcased at the Paralympics is restricted to elite athletes.

Bruce McLelland, an engineer who has an artificial leg, said the prosthetics used at the Paralympics are "a world away" from what he uses. McLelland has a normal artificial leg for everyday use and another one for swimming. He said his legs incorporate some of the design of the running blades, including being made of carbon fiber so they are lightweight while also being strong and flexible.

"The blades are great if you're going to go running, but they would not suit everyday life," he said.

Pistorius' blades are designed for sprinting at high speed so it's very hard to stay still on them without rocking.

"They also don't really fit well into your normal trouser legs," McLelland said.

McLelland said he usually watches the Paralympics to see the newest prosthetic technology, noting different designs in various sports, like the artificial legs used by badminton players, which are thicker than the running blades since they must be strong enough to allow athletes to jump sideways and quickly change direction. "I think having that kind of flexibility in my prosthetic would be great," he said.

In wheelchair sports, some countries including Britain and Japan have partnered with car companies to ensure the wheelchairs will one day be available on the mass market. To give athletes an edge in sports like wheelchair rugby and basketball, the chairs are now more agile and lightweight, an advantage ordinary wheelchair users could certainly benefit from.

Still, McLelland said his artificial leg, even if it is somewhat outdated, is just fine. "I'm very happy with it and haven't noticed anything detrimental," he said. "But then again, I'm not trying to break any world records."