Active Voice: Equipment & Technology Issues in the Paralympics

By Peter Van de Vliet, Ph.D.

Viewpoints presented in SMB commentaries reflect opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of ACSM.

Dr. Peter Van de Vliet is the Medical & Scientific Director for the International Paralympic Committee (IPC). He holds a Ph.D. in physiotherapy and motor rehabilitation from Leuven University (Belgium), where he held a post-doctoral research position in adapted physical prior to moving to Bonn, Germany, for the IPC position. His duties at IPC include the coordination of anti-doping and medical services, classification, and sports science developments in the Paralympic movement. Dr. Van de Vliet has authored or co-authored several scientific publications and book chapters on the subject, and coordinates the relationships with internationally leading research bodies in their respective areas.

ACSM and IPC have had a longstanding partnership including sharing intellectual resources at the summer and winter Olympic Games and conducting scientific symposia at the ACSM Annual Meeting.

The 2014 Winter Olympic Games ran Feb. 7-23 in Sochi, Russia, with the Paralympic Winter Games to follow March 7-16. Throughout this time, SMB will bring readers expert commentaries on sports medicine and performance issues relating to the competitions. In addition, look for a broad array of timely expert source information on such topics as sports medicine care, injury prevention and management, and a host of sports performance issues relevant to the Games on the online ACSM Sports Performance Center.

SMB is grateful to Dr. Van de Vliet for sharing his expertise through this commentary, which addresses a complex question regarding rules concerning adaptive devices that may be used by athletes who compete in the Paralympic Games.

Equipment rules are becoming more prominent in the Paralympic Movement. As a result, the International Paralympic Committee’s (IPC) Sports Science Committee recently held a scientific forum to exchange current information, research, and expertise that focused entirely on equipment and technology in Paralympic Sports. This conference, “VISTA 2013,” was held May 1-4 last year at the Gustav-Stresemann Institute in Bonn, Germany. The conference program describes the complex issues that the IPC must address in determining what equipment may or may not be approved for use by competing Paralympic athletes. What are the implications of a technology for competitive fairness? Is the device a necessity that enables the individual to participate or might it enhance performance in some manner? Does it represent a ”grass-roots” approach that could be broadly applied by low-income countries or is it a high-tech, individualized application that only athletes from selected countries might be able to access?

Equipment rules are a sport-specific subject. To effectively address those details in this brief commentary would require that experts from each sport present specific and detailed responses. Rather, it is better here to avoid such a case-by-case discussion, and instead draw your attention to the IPC Equipment Policy. This policy is part of the IPC Handbook (see Section 2, Chapter 3.10), to which all members of the Paralympic Movement (sports and athletes) must adhere.

In brief, this policy states that all adaptive equipment used in a Paralympic sport must be in compliance with four main principles:
  1. Safety: all equipment must be safe for the athlete, any opponent, and may not cause irreversible damage to the field of play;
  2. Fairness: sport rules must detail the provisions of all equipment in terms of dimensions, weight, and use of material;
  3. Universality: prototype equipment is not allowed, and costs must be 'under control' to avoid that access to equipment becomes a matter of exclusivity. For this reason, the IPC also actively engages in the development of low-cost equipment (for examples, see the website;
  4. Physical Prowess: equipment may not be steered by machine, computer or robot.
For further information on this topic, I highly recommend the following journal article by Brendan Burkett, Ph.D., from the University of the Sunshine Coast (Australia): Paralympic Sports Medicine—Current Evidence in Winter Sport: Considerations in the Development of Equipment Standards for Paralympic Athletes. Professor Burkett is a member of the IPC Sports Science Committee.