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Why Wheelchair Racers Outpace Olympic Distance Runners — But Not Sprinters

This article is part of our Tokyo Olympics series.

In 2019, Eliud Kipchoge became the first non-disabled runner to complete a marathon in under two hours. But wheelchair racers have been beating that barrier for decades: The fastest official time in a wheelchair was set in 1999 by Switzerland’s Heinz Frei. How many minutes did he beat the barrier by? Almost 40. Frei clocked in at 1:20:14. The fastest racer on the women’s side, Manuela Schär, has also far outdone Kipchoge’s mark, at 1:35:42. 

Like many para-sports, track and field runs on a classification model, attempting to place athletes with similar impairments — their word, not mine — in competition against one another. The T53 and T54 classifications, which host the two marathon record-holders, are for athletes who use wheelchairs to compete but have limited to full trunk function, allowing for a smoother transition of physical power when flying around the track or on the road. An athlete in the T52 classification, where hand function is also affected, has also broken the two-hour mark: Austria’s Thomas Geierspichler. 

But the dominance doesn’t end there. In every Olympic distance of at least 800 meters, the fastest wheelchair athletes outpace the able-bodied.

So why are athletes in wheelchairs faster than their able-bodied counterparts over longer distances but not shorter ones? Over shorter distances, a wheelchair is held back by just how slow it is to get out of the proverbial gate. It takes longer to get up to full speed than does a runner who explodes off the blocks.

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But over longer distances, the conservation of speed afforded by the high-tech chairs gives the para-athletes their edge. And the amount of conservation gained is affected by the equipment being used and the regiments being followed. In the early years of most para-sports, including track and field, there was little specialized equipment. Since then, wheelchairs have gotten lighter; athletes have gotten bigger, faster and stronger; and the training methods used by para-sport athletes, much like their abled counterparts, have gotten more sophisticated. While much of the conversation around para-sport equipment in track and field has focused around whether prosthetics create an unfair advantage for disabled runners, the innovations in the wheelchair divisions have been nothing short of revolutionary

A track chair has a handle set to the exact turn of the track, allowing for a quick motion during a turn. Due to this pre-set trajectory, a wheelchair racer can push through the turn and keep up the momentum, where an able-bodied athlete would experience a much steeper drop in speed. Brad Cracchiola of BMW, who designed the wheelchair used by 17-time Paralympic medalist Tatyana McFadden for the 2016 Games, described his process: “We designed it with the understanding that a wheelchair isn’t just a piece of equipment. It’s an aerodynamic extension of the athlete’s body, an intimate part of themselves.” Put simply, McFadden’s carbon-fiber chair isn’t just something she sits in while starring in Nike commercials: It’s an integral part of her success.

There is a danger in much of sports media to look at the tools rather than the competitor, particularly when it comes to para-sport coverage. Much like an ordinary wheelchair is a conduit for independence rather than a confining collection of metal, a racing wheelchair is not what makes any track and field athlete great. Instead, the best para-athletes are those whose equipment works in concert with their bodies as one. We should keep that in mind as athletes take to the track this week in Tokyo for the Paralympic Games. With their chairs serving as extensions of themselves, they’ll be ready to set times that would have shattered records just a month ago.

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John Loeppky is a disabled freelance journalist and theater artist living in Regina, Saskatchewan. His other work can be found at Briarpatch Magazine, Passage and the CBC.