With Cybathlon already attracting global interest ahead of its October 2016 debut, could the event pose a threat to the Paralympic Games? Elisha Chauhan asked IPC (International Paralympic Committee) President Sir Philip Craven.
Much of the intrinsic popularity of Formula One as a sport is in its dual-offering: the cars themselves attract the petrol-heads, while the drivers – who are themselves elite athletes – bring the element of personality that is so appealing to sports fans.
It is for this reason that Cybathlon – and its mix of technology and athleticism – is seen by many as an attractive sporting product. Does that mean, therefore, that as a new-age platform for disabled athletes, Cybathlon could be a competitor to the Paralympic Games?
Sir Philip Craven, leader of the international governing body for the Paralympic Movement, is diplomatic, emphasising that he sees a clear line in the sand between Cybathlon and the showpiece Paralympic Games.
“I have not seen much about Cybathlon, but I am sure some people will watch with interest,” he told SportBusiness International. “Though I am in favour of any initiative that gets more people active and involved in sport, I am also a firm believer that Paralympic athletes should fully utilise their own abilities and should not have to rely on technology to get an edge over a rival.”
I don’t see a time when the Paralympics will include robotics
Organisers of Cybathlon, however, are in discussion with potential host cities for future events (see Robotic Races), including Tokyo, which has expressed an interest in hosting an extended Cybathlon around the same time it holds the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
It is easy to understand why the tech-savvy Japanese capital is keen to integrate Cybathlon into the events. Technology and innovation is at the forefront with anything Tokyo does, and for evidence of this, look no further than its ultimately unsuccessful bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, where the bidding committee proposed to beam live holographic broadcasts of football matches in stadia across the world.
The Paralympic Games, however, ban the use of electrical devices and sporting equipment to assist the performance of athletes. This standardisation is to ensure fair play, which is in contrast to the Cybathlon, whose inherent philosophy is to encourage teams to develop prototypes and one-off robotics that are better than their counterparts.
“In my view, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games should be about the human performances of athletes, not the role of technology, and I cannot see this event being part of the great festival of sport,” adds Craven.
“I don’t see a time when the Paralympics will include robotics, because when people watch sport they want to see human endeavour excel – not that of a machine or robot.
“That is why at the IPC we have policies in place to ensure that human performance is the critical factor in determining sports performance. We also have rules that ensure all equipment used by athletes is fair and universally available to all those taking part.”
Despite the hopes of Cybathlon founder, Professor Robert Riener, that one day his event will be integrated – or at least run alongside the Paralympics as the ‘Cybalympics’ – it is unlikely under Craven’s IPC leadership that the two will come together. However, Craven does say he will be watching – alongside other sports leaders – to see what he can learn from the way Cybathlon approaches creating a sporting spectacle.
“All sports can benefit from developments in technology, you only have to look at how a sport like Formula One has developed,” he adds. “Technology can add value to a sport, but at the end of the day, the human performance of the athlete must be the critical factor in winning and in participating, not technology.”
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