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Wheelchair athletics then and now

THE WEDNESDAY COLUMN

2001-06-26

Heinz Frei, 13-time BERLIN-MARATHON wheelchair race winner, writes about the development of wheelchair athletics.

The beginnings of wheelchair athletics go back to the early 80s, when the first wheelchairs specially designed for competitive sport began to be built. Those first racers were not very different from the conventional wheelchairs used for getting about. Since then there has been a period of intensive development resulting in high tech race wheelchairs which are tailor made to suit the specific requirements of the individual athlete. Development sometimes proceeded so rapidly from year to year, that the use of the previous years model meant putting oneself at a disadvantage in competition.

The athletes have developed in parallel. In the early 80s it was enough to train two or three times a week, whereas now athletes often have two training sessions on their daily schedule, and that seven days a week! To stay somewhere near the top you have to do two to three hundred kilometres a week and it is not unusual to do ten thousand kilometres a year. In addition there has to be long-term strength training, fitness training and recuperation measures. Because training takes up so much time it becomes essential to cut down the amount of time working, or even to go the whole hog and turn professional.

Wheelchair racing has been able to fit into track events such as the real,- BERLIN-MARATHON as well as big IAAF meetings like Weltklasse Zürich, the track and field world championships, and the Olympics, where there are demonstration competitions on the 400m track.

In the future I would like to see a stronger international wheelchair sport organisation bringing good integrative ideas to fruition which, if they had already been realised, would mean that wheelchair sport would have long reached a level where a kind of world cup competition could have been held as part of marathons or track meetings, producing an overall winner each season. Such a circuit would make a big contribution to raising the profile of wheelchair sport. It would not be unrealistic to build the demonstration competitions into the official athletics programme of world championships and the "pedestrian" Olympics, which would mean a complete integration, so that the distinction between handicapped and non-handicapped would become of minor importance. Long live sport!


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