Q&A: The International Paralympic Movement Needs, Athletes and Research Opportunities
By Yves C. Vanlandewijck, Ph.D., and Walter R. Thompson, Ph.D., FACSM
Dr. Vanlandewijck is chair of the sports science committee of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), the global governing body for the Paralympics Movement. Dr. Thompson also serves on IPC’s sports science committee.
ACSM has an established partnership with the IPC, the purpose of which is to identify areas of common interest and promote new scientific and clinical discovery. Founded in 1989, the IPC organizes the Summer and Winter Paralympic Games for nine sports and coordinates other events, such as world championships for disabled athletes. The IPC has grown to include 165 member nations and is organized to advance the vision and mission of the Paralympics Movement.
In this Q&A with Sports Medicine Bulletin, Drs. Vanlandewijck and Thompson shared some of their views on the Paralympic Movement. They emphasized activities related to their sports science committee, which works to promote advancement of science and medical care in areas affecting the athletes. The IPC holds a conference every three to four years to exchange knowledge on the latest developments in these areas. Their VISTA 2011 Conference will be held during the first week of September in Bonn, Germany.
SMB: The goal of the IPC is to establish conditions for athletes to perform at their best and create safe and fair competition. What are the greatest challenges to meeting this goal faced by those who organize the Games?
Drs. Vanlandewijck and Thompson: Probably the single most important thing is a community attitude that leads to parity of support for all athletes, regardless of whether or not they have a disability. The Paralympic Movement would quickly be able to deliver close-to-optimal games in terms of fairness, performance and health if the same support resources were available for our athletes as are available for able-bodied athletes competing in the Olympic Games. Until then, scientists, coaches, physicians and sports administrators who manage the games are facing the ultimate challenge – delivering the maximal product with minimal support.
SMB: On the IPC website, we notice a question about whether the Paralympic Games should be called “Games of the Minimally Disabled.” Is this change of identification a possibility? What are the factors leading IPC to consider such a change?
Drs. Vanlandewijck and Thompson: Changing the name to “Games of the Minimally Disabled” is not a goal of the IPC but a threat to the Paralympic Movement. Classification systems were developed to create a fair competition and to protect the more severely disabled athlete from dropping out. These systems are neither evidence-based nor fully developed, and athletes with more complex disabilities are already underrepresented in team sports. In addition, individual sport events for athletes with severe disabilities are often cancelled because of lack of competitors. In some sports, such as Sledge Hockey, no classification system is used to ensure the dynamics of the sports and to offer pageant to the spectators, and this inevitably results in dropout of the least-dynamic athletes.
SMB: What types of exercise and sports medicine research projects were conducted with Paralympic athletes at the recent Beijing and Vancouver Games?
Drs. Vanlandewijck and Thompson: Scientists from all over the world come to the Paralympic Games and other IPC sanctioned events to conduct research. Projects must be approved by the sports science committee, typically one year prior to the first day of the event. The research being conducted must be submitted to a peer-reviewed journal within a year of the event, must in no way interfere with the competition and must be relevant to the athlete or to the Paralympic Movement. Past studies have included biomechanical analyses, sociological studies of both athletes and spectators and some physiological studies, so long as they were not found to conflict with the above criteria.
SMB: Have any of these studies led to any particular rules changes for competition or altered ways in which the athletes train or qualify for events?
Drs. Vanlandewijck and Thompson: Some of the most significant work of IPC scientists and research projects has led directly to rules changes to protect the athletes. For example, an injury surveillance study that started at the Salt Lake City Paralympic Games led to changes in the required uniform for Sledge Hockey players. Because of the high rate of lower extremity injuries in these athletes, padded leg protection is now required. The sledge height is also mandated to avoid the differences in sledge level that can result in one athlete running over another.
SMB: What research directions affecting the athletes do you see as important for the Paralympic Movement in the near future?
Drs. Vanlandewijck and Thompson: Unlike research that has been done on elite able-bodied athletes, little is known about the athlete with a physical or intellectual impairment. There are incredible research opportunities awaiting the scientist who has an interest in this population. We suggest that anyone interested in the Paralympic Movement or athletes with a disability, read our new book The Paralympic Athlete. This publication covers biomechanics, physiology, medicine philosophy, sociology, psychology, training and much more. Those with research interests will find limitless ideas for further investigation.