Two years on from the 2012 London Games, Elisha Chauhan finds out how medal supplier Rio Tinto’s co-operation with Imperial College London is making positive waves for the Paralympic community.
Mining company and London-headquartered medal manufacturer’s five-year partnership with Imperial College London, signed before the games, is steeped in CSR (corporate social responsibility).
Dubbed the Rio Tinto Sports Innovation Challenge, the partnership requires Imperial students to design and create equipment for disabled athletes to use in sports training and competition. The Challenge has been integrated into the existing curriculum for engineering students, with lectures and workshops organised each year with external speakers that include elite athletes, sports technicians and industry professionals.
“When the decision was made to take a sponsorship of London 2012, the question of legacy came up,” Felicity Dunn, Rio Tinto’s project lead, told SportBusiness International. “The benefits of the project are creating innovations in a completely different way, and also promoting awareness of Rio Tinto as a potential employer to Imperial students.
“We have a whole series of partnerships with universities around the world, but most of them focus on our mining industry, whereas the Imperial partnership was a conscious decision to do something different.”
Professor Peter Childs, head of engineering design at Imperial College London (centre)
Professor Peter Childs, head of engineering design at Imperial College London, says the innovations that have already materialised from the project could have wide-ranging uses for the general public, let alone elite athletes.
“By working with the Paralympians, you set yourself a more challenging task because they are the extreme user,” he says. “The likelihood is that any innovation for them could then cascade down into the wider disabled community.
“Any Paralympian will tell you that it’s too expensive to buy sports equipment; because they are not mainstream, any products that are available to them are bespoke and super expensive. Also, when there are so many disabilities and each product is so niche, manufacturers haven’t necessarily put in the effort to develop a solution for each.”
One such of these developments is an underclothing full-body white suit that blotches pink dye in areas where an athlete has incurred a possible trauma due to the impact of a fall. This could also be used by the any paralysed person who may fall and is unaware of the extent of damage they have incurred.
Probably one of the most notable projects from the partnership is a bionic arm that was tested by Paralympic silver-medal cyclist Jon-Allan Butterworth (pictured), who has been able to shave up to three seconds off his lap times with the innovation during testing.
Another successful prosthetic that has evolved from the project is Murr-ma, which aids amputees to walk on the beach, in addition to allowing them to swim and surf.
“We would love to see innovations make it into the Paralympics, and one of our cycling projects is likely to do so,” adds Childs. “I would also love to see a brand new sport in the Paralympics because of this project, such as the ice rower that allows a blind athlete and a paralysed or enabled person to compete alongside them because it is a two-person cart.
“We’ve had such a positive reaction from athletes and commentators in the press that we’re building a slightly improved version to compete with the first prototype. We will use elite athletes for that competition to generate a publicity storm to see if there’s wider interest.”