Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Download this course

Share this free course

The science behind wheeled sports
The science behind wheeled sports

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

4.1 Aerodynamics and technology in wheelchair racing

Athletes in wheelchair events can reach high speeds, so you might expect aerodynamics to play an important role in this sport. To a large extent, this is true. There are no team races involving wheelchair athletes, so you don't see teams of wheelchair athletes lined up in the same way as happens in the team events in track cycling. However, the effect of air resistance and aerodynamics does impact on individual wheelchair athletes.

Activity 6 Wheelchair racing

Timing: (The estimated time needed to complete this activity is 5 minutes.)

Go to the BBC Motion Gallery website [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] and search for terms involving wheelchair racing to find a few clips, like this example. This clip shows several wheelchair athletes in a marathon race. Note how they ride directly behind each other, just as cyclists do in a race.

Materials technology has also affected wheelchair design. Wheelchairs have become lighter as new materials become available, and carbon-fibre chairs are now standard in racing events.

The next activity asks you to use the internet to research the extent of the effect of new technology on racing wheelchairs. This activity is very similar to Activity 3, in which you searched for images of bicycles. However, wheelchair racing is less prominent than cycling and has a shorter history, so it is harder to find images showing these design changes. You may have to think more carefully about how you search for images in this case.

Activity 7 Finding images of racing wheelchairs

Timing: (The estimated time needed to complete this activity is 30 minutes.)

Has wheelchair design changed significantly in the last 30 years?

To answer this question, use internet image banks to find depictions of wheelchairs used in wheelchair racing over the last 30 years. (Remember, you read about image bank websites such as Google or Yahoo! Images, Flickr and Getty Images in Activity 3.)

Use the images that you find to answer the question, noting down your answers in your study diary.


Figure 10 shows some images of wheelchair racing from different decades.

Grateful acknowledgement is made to Getty Images (Figure 10a and Figure 10c) and AFP/Getty Images (Figure 10b).
Figure 10 (a) Wheelchair athletes competing in the London marathon in 1986. (b) A group of athletes starting the wheelchair division of the Boston marathon in 1996. (c) A Japanese athlete competing in the Boston marathon in 2008.

You probably had some difficulty finding a good set of images from the last 30 years, mainly because wheelchair sport has only become well-known and well-funded in the last 10-15 years, and hence there are fewer photographs from before this time. We found our images on the Getty Images website, by searching for terms such as 'wheelchair', 'racing' and 'marathon'.

The images in Figure 10 show that wheelchair design has changed greatly. Even in the 1980s, wheelchair athletes competed using relatively ordinary wheelchairs that had been only slightly modified but, as Paralympic sport has become more prominent, increased time, effort and money has been spent to develop specialist wheelchairs.

In this course we have asked you to use the internet to find information about cycling and wheelchair events. The internet is an incredibly useful source of information but it does have some drawbacks. The following activity asks you to think about one such aspect.

Activity 8 Limitations of the internet

Timing: (The estimated time needed to complete this activity is 10 minutes.)

Consider your experience of using the internet in this course. What problems did you encounter while searching for information? Note up to three problems in your study diary, then see our comments in the 'Reveal discussion' section below.


Despite its undoubted usefulness, the list of problems that you might encounter while using the internet is potentially very long. Here, we list three of the most common issues.

  • Too much information. If you search for quite general information, you might come across so many websites that you simply cannot decide what is useful and what is not. We gave some guidelines in Section 1.4 that will help you, but this is a recurring problem.
  • Too little information. While the internet contains a great deal of information, it doesn't contain everything. In Activity 7, we asked you to find images of wheelchairs, and you probably found that task quite difficult. To get a detailed view of the history of wheelchair racing you might have to go to a library and find a book on this topic, or even contact a sporting association to get some advice on where to find this information. In this course we will not ask you questions that require this type of extended search, but if you use the internet repeatedly you are almost certain to find instances where you simply cannot find the information you need.
  • Too time-consuming. This is a common problem, and one that we have mentioned several times throughout the course. We have given advice at various points of the course and we strongly recommend that you keep those tips in mind when searching for information on the Web.