Space & Innovation

Paralympics 2016 Wheelchairs Get Design Boost from BMW

This is one of the first times that carbon fiber has been used in racing wheelchairs, which are usually fabricated with aluminum.

Josh George fell out of a bedroom window as a four-year old toddler. The accident left him using a wheelchair, but didn't slow down his athletic career. George has raced in three Paralympics since 2004, won the 2015 London Marathon and holds the world record in the 800 meters.

This year, he's training for the 2016 Paralympic games in Rio de Janiero in September and is one of the first to get a customized, carbon fiber racing chairs designed by BMW North America to help U.S. parathletes bring home gold.

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This racing wheelchair is the first time that a manufacturer has applied modern tools of aerodynamics and high-tech manufacturing to wheelchair racing, according to George, a 32-year old racer from Herndon, Va.

"Its a huge step forward for a the sport," George said. "We are fighting to leave behind this model that a wheelchair is a medical device and not a lifestyle device and sporting device. BMW has understood that a racing chair is a piece of high-tech equipment."

BMW has been working with the U.S. Olympic Team for several years, beginning with a special device to help long-jumpers jump longer and a super-charged two-man bobsled for the 2014 Sochi Olympics. That sled took bronze behind Russia and Switzerland, but also paved the way for two new 2016 projects, the racing wheelchair and a stroke analyzer for swimmers.

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Wheelchair racing is fast, and grueling, with the possibility of high-speed collisions ever present during a race.

As a result, racing chairs must be designed to properly fit each athlete individually, maximize aerodynamics as well as the stiffness of the frame.

Pilots with transfemoral amputation will be equipped with actuated exoprosthetic devices and will have to successfully complete a race course as quickly as possible. | ETH Zurch and NCCR Robotics

Carbon fiber has been long used in racing bicycles, for example, for its stiff, light weight and ability to dampen vibrations from the road. But this is one of the first times that its been used in racing wheelchairs, which are usually fabricated using aluminum frame material.

"We want a chair that can accelerate, and as they are pushing we want it to be efficient," said Brad Cracchiola, associate designer at BMW North America Group Designworks, based in Los Angeles. "We want the energy to be translated as efficiently possible up to speed so they are getting the most out of their push."

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Cracchiola said BMW worked with each racer to design a special pair of gloves for pushing the wheel, gloves that are actually more like molded pistol grips made from a putty-like material. BMW designers used a 3-D printer to get a more exacting fit, and built the wheelchair chassis using a scanning technique and automobile manufacturing techniques "Existing chairs have a rectangular metal bucket, so the racers shim their body in with foam blocks and straps, Cracchiola said. "With our chair, we took inspiration from auto racing doing a custom body mold in their cockpit. Once they get in it, they havea perfect fit. They can't flip. We also customized the steering around their ergonomics."

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BMW unveiled the new chairs for George and five other wheelchair athletes headed to Rio for the 2016 Paralympic games. He said he hopes it will add to his taly of five Paralympic medals; two gold.

"Instead of borrowing research and development from another sport, BMW has done their own for the sport of wheelchair racing," George said. "Some of the design changes, material choices will help elevate our performances."

Even thought BMW is a German-owned firm, the partnership is between BMW's North America division and the U.S. Olympic Committee. The chairs or technology won't be shared with other nations.

116 Years of Very Strange Sports

The Summer Olympic Games are the time to celebrate the athletic accomplishments of men and women around the world. And it turns out that those accomplishments have taken, and continue to take, a lot of very odd forms. Over the past century, Games organizers have thought better of including sports like solo synchronized swimming and rope climbing. But that doesn't mean the events that are left are entirely normal, either: Racewalking and trampolining can still get you a gold medal. These 10 events represent the utter strangeness that Games past and present have included, along with all the glory and spectacle.

Slide 2: Equestrian Long Jump

While humans still compete to jump as far as they can in current Olympiads, horses were cut from the sport in 1900, after their only chance at gold, in Paris. The winning jump was measured at just over 20 feet, by Constant van Langendonck on his horse Extra Dry. For the record, Langendonck got the medal, not Extra Dry.


Olympic gymnasts are capable of incredible tricks using nothing but their own bodies. So it seems like overkill to give them a trampoline; it's a bit like strapping a jet pack to sprinters. Competitors pull off some real high-flying stunts, but they never feel quite as impressive as what they can do on the ground. Trampolining became an Olympic sport just 12 years ago; after all, the modern trampoline has only been around since 1936.

Solo Synchronized Swimming

The strangest thing about this one is the oxymoronic name. The sport itself, in the Games between 1984 and 1992, consists of one person dancing in the water, alone, but to music. It's doubtful many people were surprised or upset when it lost its Olympic status.

Canoe Slalom

Slalom is a word that usually refers to the ski event in the Winter Olympics. But the Summer Games include canoe and kayak slalom (women can only compete in the latter). In what's also known as whitewater canoeing, medalist hopefuls paddle through (artificial) rapids, swinging back and forth through 25 gates.

Pistol Dueling

At the 1906 Games in Athens, Frenchman Léon Moreaux took gold in the 20 meter pistol shooting event, Greek Konstantinos Skarlatos won the 30 meter. Of course, it wouldn't be in the spirit of the Olympics to put athletes in front of firing bullets; competitors fired at mannequins dressed in frock coats.

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Modern Pentathlon

Even events in the modern Olympics can get outdated. In 1912, Pierre de Coubertin's modern pentathlon debuted at the Stockholm Games. Just as the Ancient Greek pentathlon demanded five skills required by the soldier of the day (long jump, javelin throw, discus throw, running, and wrestling), the modern version was inspired by the pre-World War I soldier. In 2012, modern pentathlon athletes compete in pistol shooting, fencing, swimming, jumping on an unfamiliar horse, and cross-country running: all skills the late 19th century cavalry soldier relied on when stuck behind enemy lines.

Rope Climb

That's right -- the gym class activity you probably hated as a child was actually an Olympic sport until the 1932 Games in Los Angeles. Part of the gymnastics category, the event consisted of a climb, using only the hands and arms, to the top of a rope around 25 feet long. (The details varied with each Olympics.) Speed was usually the name of the game, but at the 1896 Games, athletes were judged on their form as well, the ideal being holding the body in a perfect "L" shape.

50 Kilometer Race Walk

The obvious silliness of speed walking, or race walking, is balanced by the length of the longer event: 50 kilometers, just over 31 miles. The most amazing part of the sport is that when it comes down to the wire, no one loses their composure and breaks into a run in a desperate bid to take home the gold medal.

Standing High Jump

These days, the ability to jump from a standstill is really only important to basketball and football players looking to impress talent scouts. But from 1900 until 1912, the standing high jump was an Olympic sport. Amazingly, American Ray Ewry won the gold at all five of those Games. Even more impressive is the fact that he spent part of his childhood in a wheelchair after contracting polio. It's an inspirational sports movie waiting to happen.

Team Pursuit Cycling

Team pursuit cycling consists of two teams of four cyclists in a four kilometer race: pretty normal. What's strange is how the actual event works. The two teams start from opposite ends of an indoor track; they approach the finish line from either side. The four cyclists race in single file, letting the leader take the brunt of the wind resistance. After a set interval, he swings to the outside of the track and joins the group at its back. It's not the first member of the team to cross the line who determines the final time; nor is is the fourth: The third racer is the one who matters. To take advantage of this quirk, one rider will go for a "death pull" in the closing moments of the race, pedaling 100 percent to give his teammates behind him an extra advantage, then pulling out and letting them go for the gold. Follow Alex on Twitter.

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