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The Evolution of the Wheelchair

Posted September. 23, 2004 22:07,   


“Faster, lighter, sturdier.”

At the Paralympic Games, the competition in high-tech equipment is as fierce as that at the Olympic Games.

The most prominent for their evolution over the years are the wheelchairs. Until the late 1970s, athletes competed in the four-wheeled steel wheelchairs used in hospitals. Now, they come in custom “sports” varieties, tailored for basketball, tennis, track events, and more. As a result, world and Olympic records have been greatly shortened.

The progenitor of it all is David Kiley. When he took the gold in the 100m wheelchair event in the 1976 Toronto Paralympic Games with a winning time of 19 seconds, he had cut off the rear parts and brakes of his steel wheelchair to reduce its weight.

But these days, 19 seconds won’t even get you in the finals. The current world record for this event is 13.99 seconds, set last year by Australian Geoff Trappett. From steel to aluminum to titanium, materials have become lighter yet sturdier. The number of wheels has been reduced from four to three, for enhanced acceleration and rotation.

Back in the 1970s, wheelchairs weighed over 20kg. Nowadays, wheelchairs specialized for track events weigh only 7kg.

The pioneers of this evolution are the players themselves. Jeff Minnebraker, who first commercialized the sports wheelchair in the early 1980s, was himself a disabled athlete. He modified the accelerator to improve instantaneous movement, which led to dramatic new developments in wheelchair tennis.

Marilyn Hamilton, two-time winner of the U.S. Open Wheelchair Championship, founded the company Motion Designs, famous for the “Quickie” wheelchair, and developed wheelchairs for basketball and track events as well as for tennis. She’s also responsible for introducing wheelchairs of diverse colors.

With the upsurge of interest in sports among people with disabilities, a whole string of sports wheelchair manufacturers followed, including Otto Bock, Invacare, and RGK. These companies are competitively developing sports products suited to the desires and demands of disabled persons. Dramatic technological advancements for not only wheelchairs but also artificial limbs and other categories are anticipated in the near future. Experts predict that it won’t be long before disabled athletes with artificial legs run the 100m dash with records under 11 seconds.

Sung-Kyu Kim kimsk@donga.com