Tech drives the Paralympics

United States' Josua Pauls, right, in action with Russia's Konstantin Shikhov, center, and Ilia Volkov during an ice sledge hockey match between United States and Russia at the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Sochi, Russia, Tuesday, March 11, 2014. AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin

While technology and innovation often propel able-bodied Olympic athletes to gold, they are even more important in the Paralympics. Without technology, the Winter Paralympic Games wouldn't be possible.

Technologists from world-renowned companies including Boeing and Dyson have joined the effort to create high-tech equipment that allows Paralympians to compete at the highest levels.

Biathlon

017-477760919-10.jpg
Svetlana Konovalova of Russia competes in the Women's Biathlon 10km - Sitting during day four of Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games at Laura Cross-country Ski & Biathlon Center on March 11, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
As in the Olympics, Paralympic biathlon combines cross-country skiing and sharpshooting. Competitors have either physical disabilities, such as paralysis, or impaired vision. The different disabilities require different equipment.

For athletes with limited lower-body mobility, there are mono-skis, which consist of a molded seat on a metal frame with one alpine ski underneath. Mono-skiers use poles that are comparable to ski poles, but resemble a forearm crutch with a short ski on the bottom. For those with limited upper-body mobility, or who are missing an arm (or part of an arm), there is a special rifle.

But it is the vision-impaired athletes who use one of the most interesting of the technological innovations: a special rifle equipped with electro-acoustic headphones. When they aim, it makes a noise to let them know if they are aiming accurately. The farther they are from the target, the lower the pitch of the noise.

Sledge Hockey

012-ap333614340534.jpg
Graeme Murray of Canada, top, and Emil Kirstistuen of Norway in action during an ice sledge hockey match between Canada and Norway at the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Sochi, Russia, Sunday, March 9, 2014. Canada won 4-0.
AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin
Sledge-hockey athletes have varying degrees of lower-body mobility, but they level the playing field by competing in a sled that sits less than a foot off the ice. It's a fairly simple design, with a seat, two blades and a thin triangular metal frame at the front to keep it balanced. The blades don't extend the full length of the sled because players pass the puck underneath.

To steer the sleds, the players use a very different kind of hockey stick. One end of the stick features a six-toothed ice pick, so that they can jab the ice and push themselves forward or switch directions.

The sled hockey gold medal game -- there is only one, as women do not yet compete in sled hockey -- will be aired live on NBC on March 15. This is the first time a Paralympics event will be aired live on a major network.

Alpine Skiing

008-ap615914830650.jpg
Roman Rabl of Austria races during men's super combined, slalom, sitting event at the 2014 Winter Paralympics, Tuesday, March 11, 2014, in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
AP
Of the 72 Paralympics events, 32 are in alpine skiing. This year, Canadian team technician Joe Franklin replaced the usual all-terrain vehicle shocks for mountain bike shocks by using a lever system, while at the same time, switching to a tube design that makes the sit-skis lighter and more adaptable, according to the Canadian Press.

Sit-skier Kim Joines told the Canadian Press that Franklin's modifications were invaluable, making the sled feel like an extension of her body when she's racing. Other athletes, such as sit-skier Josh Dueck, feel that the modifications give them an advantage.

"Bottom line is it makes it a smoother ride, more consistent and it's safer for me to challenge the [racing] line and go faster and keep up with the competition," he told the Canadian press.

Wheelchair Curling

015-ap762162461880.jpg
Sweden's Kicki Ulander, right, steadies the chair of Patrik Kallin during round robin session wheelchair curling match against Canada at the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Sochi, Russia, Sunday, March 9, 2014. Canada won 7-4.
AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin
The differences between curling and wheelchair curling come down to physics more than tech. Wheelchair curlers have to be more accurate when they push the curling stone, because there are no sweepers out in front to affect the stone's course or smooth the ice.

While the high-tech equipment helps create exciting Paralympics competition, there are benefits beyond the sports realm.

"There's a lot of money going into developing Paralympic sports equipment. It takes a while, but it does have benefits for the disabled community as a whole," sports sociologist Ian Brittain told Fast Company.

"Lighter, better equipment becomes available for the Paralympics, and then slowly, over time, those new technologies trickle down into the general population of people with disabilities."

Michael Roppolo contributed reporting to this piece.

  • Danielle Elliot On Twitter» On Facebook»

    Danielle Elliot is a freelance science editor and reporter for CBS News. She holds an M.A. in science and health journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in broadcast journalism from the University of Maryland. Follow her on Twitter - @daniellelliot.

Comments