Cybathlon: a sneak peek into the first Bionic Olympic Games!

The morning of the 7 September saw the House of Switzerland Brazil 2016 in a flurry of activity getting ready for what promised to be a busy day due to the national holiday as well as the opening of the Paralympic Games. However, this was far from the only reason. Sensors were being installed, a video game tested and the last screws tightened on a tricycle before the House opened to the public at 11.00 am sharp.

Exactly one month before the first Cybathlon in Zurich, swissnex Brazil seized the opportunity of the Paralympics to invite the organizing committee of the first Bionic Olympics in history to Rio de Janeiro to give the Brazilian audience a taste of the competition that took place on 8 October 2016. Peter Wolf, Dario Wyss and Roland Sigrist all from the Sensory Motor Systems Lab at ETH Zurich traveled to Rio bringing along two hands-on demonstrations of the six disciplines that the pilots will compete in: the Functional Electrical Stimulation and the Brain-Computer Interface video game race.

Almost simultaneously another highly motivated group landed at the national Santos Dumont airport. The Empowering Mobility and Autonomy (EMA) team from the University of Brasília (UnB) is a team of researchers and a paraplegic pilot who will represent Brazil at the Cybathlon in the Functional Electrical Stimulation discipline. Their project started with the development of this technology, which contracts the muscles of persons with a medullar injury. In partnership with a Rio-based company, they developed an adapted tricycle, the EMA Trike, which the group hopes will help pilot Estevão Lopes win the race in Zurich. The equipment works with low-powered electrical impulses using superficial electrodes. These impulses make it possible for Estevão to power the trike with his own legs. “The best part of this technology is that it won’t be limited only to high-performance athletes but can be used in daily life. Apart from that, there is the psychological factor: it’s electrical stimulation but I am the one who makes it happen. This is amazing!” Estevão mentions.

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This goes to the heart of the goal of the Cybathlon itself, which is not to be a competition for professional athletes but rather aims to use assistive technology in solving everyday problems. This is demonstrated in the disciplines where the pilots need to, for example, hang up clothes pegs on a line with the help of a prosthetic device.

Considering the high costs of travel of the only Latin American team participating in the Cybathlon, the EMA group resorted to the use of crowdfunding to help them realize the trip to Zurich. The participation in the event at the House of Switzerland paired with the publicity the group received may have just contributed a bit to them reaching the needed funding only a few days later. The group is now ready to get on a plane to Zurich!

However, the activities at the House of Switzerland did not end with the hands-on demonstrations, which were enjoyed by young and old alike. Rather, swissnex Brazil jumped on the topic of assistive technologies to discuss the topic with Swiss and Brazilian experts in the field the day after. With a first panel discussion the future of assistive technologies was debated between Peter Wolf, (Deputy Head of the Cybathlon), Antônio Padilha, (Professor of Electrical Engineering and part of the EMA team), José Otavio Pompeu (Professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro) and Sarah Springman (Professor and Rector at the ETH Zurich) reaching the conclusion that we must make use of the advances in technology to try and remove the barriers to a dignified life for disabled persons. The second panel counted with the presence of Francisco Araújo (Innovation Manager at Viva Rio), Dario Wyss (Chief Technology Officer of Cybathlon) and Flávia Porto (Professor of Physical Education at the State University of Rio de Janeiro) and took a more social direction discussing the danger of assistive technologies being a luxury only attainable by the privileged and wealthy. The conclusion was reached, however, that it must be taken into consideration that certain technologies (such as smartphones for example) have never been as accessible as now and that we must work toward achieving the same for prostheses and other assistive technology to be able to incur real and lasting change.

After two days of futuristic visions and discussions, both Swiss and Brazilians left with a sparkle in their eyes and a hunger for more. The destination for those who were in Zurich on the 8 October 2016 was clear: the Cybathlon at the Swiss Arena in Kloten, Zurich. But even for those far away in Brazil or anywhere in the world it was possible to follow this inspiring competition via live-streaming on the Cybathlon website. For our part, swissnex Brazil loudly cheered on these inspiring individuals!

Rio de Janeiro, 10 October 2016

See more pictures here.



   Malin Borg, Deputy CEO and Academic Relations swissnex Brazil


Check out how the Cybathlon in Zurich looks like!