Author: Sam Brady, 21st October 2021

At this point of my research, I have begun to analyse the oral histories I’ve collected and use them in my writing more frequently. As expected, new ideas and themes have emerged as I’ve continued my investigation into Paralympic history. Recently, I’ve been considering the nature of the technological development of sporting wheelchair technology as it relates to the wider community of athletes. On the one hand, I’ve been told of co-operative development, as athletes shared ideas and worked together to improve their equipment and technique. On the other hand, the athlete-driven history of these devices highlights an emphasis on competition and personal achievement. In this blog post, I’ll consider both of these interpretations of sports wheelchair technology, using my oral history interviews to help conceptualise the nature of early development.

Engineers work on equipment for wheelchair athletes training at Stoke Mandeville in July 1964,
ahead of the Tokyo 1964 Paralympic Games. Image ©Alamy

Interpreting technological development as an extension of the competition inherent to wheelchair-based sports makes a lot of sense. Like in any sport, athletes wanted to perform to their best capabilities, and subsequently developed new techniques, training methods and specialised equipment to achieve this. Early modifications to wheelchairs were therefore greatly motivated by these competitive desires. As LaMere and Labanowich commented in the first part of their ‘The History of Sports Wheelchairs article series, published in 1984:

As wheelchair sports became more widespread and competitive in nature, the athletes began looking for ways they could improve their performance. As a result, they have focused their attention on a major variable that determines performance — the wheelchair.[1]

Speaking about his motivation towards sports chair design, Canadian racer Paul Clark summed up his approach to technical development succinctly: 

…that was my whole motivation. I want to go faster. I want to be the best.[2]

Of course, the best technology was hardly unnoticed by other athletes. Seemingly, not many design changes and technical innovations were patented – likely due to factors such as the rapid pace at which chairs developed ­– allowing other athletes to copy new tweaks and ideas as they saw fit. Andrew Hodge, a wheelchair racer for Team GB in the 1988, 1992 and 1996 Paralympics, commented: 

All the time you were watching other racers and trying to copy them. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. But yeah, you were always watching the competition, watching the kind of chairs they had, how they were pushing.[3]

So, even if they were not explicitly working with one another, ideas were exchanged at competitions and events as athletes battled it out for first place. Innovation via observation even worked across different sports. Robin Tarr, a former wheelchair rugby player and current coach for Britain, highlighted the inspiration rugby chairs took from basketball chairs:

Very much from basketball, we'd obviously seen the basketball and how they played the game. One of our players had played a bit of basketball so he had a basketball chair. So this is where we started getting the ideas from, you know, with camber, you could turn quicker, you know, that we did have an anti-tip bar on the back that's going to give you that bit more stability.[4]

However, interviewees also explicitly referred to outright co-operation between athletes, placing wheelchair innovation (alongside other innovations in equipment or technique) as part of the broader social appeal of sport. Relationships and communities grew around these sports, and this allowed athletes to share technical ideas and draw from each other’s experiences. Later in his interview, Tarr went on to say:

The social aspect is huge. I mean, when I started playing the sport, it was purely […] social, you used to go to a Leisure Centre, we'd talk for a bit, we played the sport, we'd have a laugh, then we go for a few beers, we'd talk about adaptations for cars, and living with a disability. So it's... it's very important that you are offering somebody a sport that... giving them, you know, you mix with people like yourself, that you can learn from, and it's giving them confidence and strength, it has a multitude of benefits, […] it's not just the competition.[5]

During our interview, basketball player and Paralympian Judith Hamer expressed similar sentiments about modern wheelchair basketball. Throughout our conversation, Hamer referred to trying out other players’ chairs in order to get a feeling for different types of setup (even if this was not fully accurate due to the highly customised nature of modern basketball chairs). She said:

We do still have quite a lot of conversations with each other about our chairs, and we try and like swap ideas, and I've been really fortunate in the past... you know, we train with the men and I've taken chairs in before and be like 'I hate this, like I can't play in this thing.' And they've taken it away for half an hour and tinkered with it and come back and it's like, I can deal with it. And maybe you can't sit in someone's chair and try it necessarily, like we do do that a little bit within each other's chairs. [...] What I love about it is that you're always learning, and you can always learn from other athletes and what setups they might have tried.[6]

There is, however, an important economic factor in this question, as some of the wheelchair athletes who modified their equipment in the late 1970s and early 1980s also established manufacturing businesses to sell their designs. Arguably, economic incentives may have also increased competitiveness between business owners. Jim Martinson suggested this in his interview. As an accomplished racer and owner of the wheelchair manufacturer Magic in Motion (which produced the Shadow brand of wheelchairs until their acquisition by Sunrise Medical in the mid 1990s), Martinson saw his competitive personality in both his athletic and entrepreneurial pursuits.

I was as competitive in businesses as I was in sports.

When I started going to Japan to Oita marathon, I'd go to Japan, and there was two Shadow racing chairs. And by the time I stopped going there, there's probably, out of 500 chairs, 250 of them were mine. So yeah, I hated the 250 that weren't mine and I love the 250 that were mine. *Laughs*[7]

On the other hand, the developing wheelchair industry did not stop collaboration and co-operation between elite athletes. Swedish racer and manufacturer Bosse Lindqvist, for example, manufactured wheelchairs for himself and friends in the 1980s. He told me that, in 1986, he had teamed up with Bob Hall and Jim Knaub, two top wheelchair racers and prolific chair designers, to continue to make innovations to the racing chair.[8] Similarly, Martinson worked closely with new athletes to support their entry to the sport, sponsoring them and providing them with equipment. In their interviews, participants Adam Bleakney, Craig Blanchette and Chris Waddell all spoke about their experiences working with Martinson at the start of their athletic careers. During our interview, Waddle commented:

I started- I was affiliated with Shadow, and Jim not only was the manufacturer, but he became a friend, and a hero in a lot of ways.

Jim, in some ways, was a Pied Piper. And so I got to meet with him, got to ski with him. Which seeing him ski for the first time, I went, 'Oh, phew.' Like, 'You can actually do this.'[9]

This suggests that any competitiveness between these athletes did not hamper their willingness to work together. This is demonstrated as athletes worked together on the technology itself, or simply in their willingness to work with athletes new to these sports. Therefore, this suggests there was a balance of competition and co-operation in the world of wheelchair sport technology.

Given the relatively small scale of wheelchair sports, and the passion of many players and manufacturers, this mix of competition and co-operation isn’t that surprising, and may have been obvious from the beginning. However, considering questions like these helps to frame how athletes and manufacturers approached the sport and technology, and the nature of the wider community around these sports. As well, it helps to showcase the multitude of motivations surrounding technical development, plus the relationships that existed between athletes. However, there’s always the risk of nostalgia or personality differences here, so this is a topic worthy of further consideration! I’m looking forward to making this question a part of my research going forward.

[1] Thomas John LaMere and Stan Labanowich, ‘The History of Sports Wheelchairs – Part 1,’ SPORTS ‘N’ SPOKES, March/April 1984, pp 6.
[2] Interview with Paul Clark, conducted by the author, 25/03/2021.
[3] Interview with Andrew Hodge, conducted by the author, 03/11/2020.
[4] Interview with Robin Tarr, conducted by the author, 02/03/2021.
[5] Ibid
[6] Interview with Judith Hamer, conducted by the author, 09/10/2020.
[7] Interview with Jim Martinson, conducted by the author, 13/10/2020.
[8] Interview with Bo Lindqvist, conducted by the author, 12/10/2020.
[9] Interview with Chris Waddell, conducted by the author, 23/02/2021.