If you're one of those people who cheered Canada's medal count at the XX Olympic Games, you should know that a far more impressive event was waiting in the wings.
Two weeks after the fireworks popped and most of the press went home, over 1,000 world-class athletes took to the slopes and arenas in Torino, Italy, for the IX Paralympic Winter Games, March 10 to 19.
For the record, "paralympics" means parallel to the Olympics, not Olympics for paraplegics. The events aren't televised, because the sponsorship money just isn't there and, despite the awesome athletes, the audiences can't be guaranteed.
Instead, check out the webcast of all the events at the International Paralympic Committee's site: www. paralympicsport.tv . It features a searchable archive, program guide and highlights section.
In many ways, these Games make for more interesting viewing, because the athletes aren't carbon copies of one another. Each has individualized harnesses and prosthetics specially designed for his or her participation in events. The truly visionary technology used by athletes is often a test run for designs that help thousands of people with disabilities.
There are five sports to check out: alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, biathlon, ice sledge hockey and wheelchair curling.
The skiing events are performed in three categories based on the type of disability the athlete has: standing, sitting or with a guide.
The standing skiers generally have amputated upper or lower limbs but haven't had spinal cord injuries. Some ski without prosthetics, but for those who have them, friction between the prosthetic and the body can be painful. Scientist and amputee Carl Casper has developed a so-called "tech-liner," a gel-like material that sits between the skin and the prosthesis to eliminate friction, increasing comfort during competition.
Skiers with one leg use one regular ski but also use poles with small skis attached called crutch skis or outriggers. LaCome Inc. manufactures the FlipSki, a crutch ski that flips up into a vertical position to serve as a pole for icy sections. Metal claws at the back of the ski can be used to slow a skier unable to stop traditionally.
The sitting skiers are usually paraplegics and quadriplegics who bomb down the run on a mono-ski or bi-ski. The Radventures Inc. mono-ski is a single ski attached to a strong titanium leg on which the skier sits. Enabling Technologies Inc. makes bi-ski frames of aircraft-quality aluminum with shock absorbers, straps and a host of accessories.
Visually impaired skiers, who may be partially or completely blind, can use a guide who describes the intricacies of the course from the sidelines with a megaphone. The very best skiers just need to hear their sighted guide ski on the course ahead of them to know which path to take.
For the cross-country categories, the skiers are outfitted with a chair fitted on two cross-country skis that are stiffer and less curved than traditional skis. Harnesses and sledges are made from cutting-edge composites like carbon fibre, a remarkable material that can flex without breaking.
For the biathlon, visually impaired skiers follow their guide to the shooting range and are directed to the targets by sound. Their air rifles shoot a beam of light and sound at the target that gets bounced back to the shooter's headset. The pitch increases the closer they get to the target, allowing them to refine their aim.
In the ice sports, the athletes must perform sitting. The hockey players sit in specially designed sledges with two skate blades that allow the puck to pass underneath. They use two double-sided sticks with a spike end for pushing off the ice and a blade end for shooting.
The curling events, which made their debut in Torino, are similar to the regular version, except no sweeping is allowed and the rocks can be delivered with the aid of a cue stick, invented in Canada, that has a variable length depending on the disability of the player.
Twenty-four medals is an impressive accomplishment, but I'd much prefer to live in a country that flubs the Olympic Games and kicks ass at the Paralympics, where the athletes exhibit truly exemplary drive and commitment.