Wheelchair basketball technology pushing limits

The advancements in the wheelchair basketball chair are bound to be talked about at this week’s VISTA2013 conference. 29 Apr 2013
A picture of man fixing up a wheelchair

The Ottobock technical service team provided help to the 4,200 athletes competing at the London 2012 Paralympic Games.

By Joel Mackenzie | For the IPC

Apart from the regulations stipulating the size restrictions of a basketball wheelchair, chair manufacturers face very few restrictions when designing and producing modern chairs.

Technological advancements have changed the way para-athletes train and recover, and it’s changed the way fans think about, communicate about and watch sports.

Athletes today are running further, jumping higher, swimming faster and seemingly doing things unimaginable to audiences and sports fans not so long ago.

For wheelchair basketball players, in addition to athletes in other sports,, these advances in equipment and technology that play a key role in athletic performance will be discussed at the International Paralympic Committee’s (IPC) upcoming VISTA 2013 conference which will take place from Wednesday-Saturday (1-4 May) in Bonn, Germany.

The chair’s revolution

The wheelchair basketball chair design has undergone significant changes since the beginning of the Paralympic Movement.

Apart from the regulations stipulating the size restrictions of a basketball wheelchair, chair manufacturers face very few restrictions when designing and producing modern chairs.

Unlike swimming’s restrictions in swim suit technology and, more recently, prosthetic leg regulations, there are no real limitations being put on advancing technologies in the production of basketball wheelchairs.

Basketball chair design has seen the introduction of cambered wheels to improve a player’s turning circle and stability in performing sharp turns.

There has also been the addition of rear caster wheels to stop athletes from falling out backwards and carbon fibre spokes to increase the strength of their wheels.

What’s next?

Today’s advances are more subtle, with the most progress in the last decade coming in the materials being used to make the chairs and advances in welding technology.

Helge Maday, International Product Manager for Ottobock, said advances in welding techniques means chairs are less reliant on screw connections to hold a frame together, limiting the number of weak points in a basketball chair and reducing its overall weight.

“Detailed research has led to an optimised weight and stiffness ratio, mostly coming from excellent welding technology and proper choice of materials,” she said.

“The elimination of screw connections and other weak points are close to being perfect. Every screwed or bolted connection adds weight; therefore you hardly find any on today’s competition sports wheelchairs.”

Maday added that chair design and sitting position is close to perfect now that chair manufacturers are producing chairs made from lightweight materials.

Simply put, lighter chairs make for more speed.

The less weight a player has to transport on top of their existing body weight the better, but there is an inevitable trade-off between the weight of a chair and its overall strength.

“There is a point where weight reduction interferes with the chair’s stiffness and stability,” Maday said. “Of course the material selection is important for the chair’s overall weight, but the most important factor in a chair’s strength is the welding.”

Chairs can now can weigh as little as 19 pounds (8.5kg), but Maday said current technology exists to make them even lighter.

“Material is one thing you that can always make a difference,” Maday said.

“At present, most people are using either aluminium alloy or titanium. Carbon fibre technology is likely to be the next step, but at this stage cost is the barrier.”