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Some Rio wheelchair marathoners will be racing in Hondas

TOKYO -- Honda Motor, wheelchair maker.

The Japanese automotive icon is trying to help Japanese athletes succeed at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympics, which started on Wednesday. Besides developing sport-specific wheelchairs, Honda also uses 3-D technology to help athletes improve their form.

In late July, Japanese wheelchair marathoners Hiroyuki Yamamoto and Wakako Tsuchida were at Kumamoto Health Science University in Kumamoto, western Japan. They were there to be measured. Their muscle movement and arm strength as well as their wheelchairs' direction of force and driving force would be observed by motion capture technology.

First, about 20 round reflective markers are applied to Yamamoto and Tsuchida's shoulders, elbows and other joints, as well as to their heads.

More than 10 cameras then shoot the two athletes as they propel their wheelchairs, necks craning forward.

Data collected through 10- to 15-minute shootings is later scrutinized by motion analysis software developed by Tokyo-based nac Image Technology. The two athletes' muscle movements is then rendered in 3-D animation.

The project is being jointly conducted by Honda R&D Sun, an Oita-based wheelchair development unit of Honda Motor, Kumamoto Kinoh Hospital and Kumamoto Health Science University. The project began in spring 2015 with the goal of finding the most efficient way to operate a Kiwami wheelchair, developed by Honda Motor group, in a race.

The measuring equipment was developed by Honda R&D and Honda R&D Sun.

Wakako Tsuchida hopes to win the gold in the wheelchair marathon in Rio on Sept. 18.

Wheelchair marathons can be won and lost by how well integrated the wheelchair is with the athlete. Good integration is the key to acceleration. A world-class male athlete can finish a 42.195km wheelchair marathon in less than one hour and 30 minutes. He can average 30kph on flat ground and 50kph going downhill.

The men's and women's wheelchair marathon starts at 12:30 p.m. on Sept. 18, the final day of the Paralympics. How the athletes handle a hairpin turn at one end of the course -- the marathoners will make five laps along the coast -- could decide the race.

Technology that counts

It is said to be the strength or skill of the athletes, rather than the performance of their wheelchairs, that plays the key role in increasing speed.

-- How well can the marathoners get their chairs to accelerate?

-- What tactics do they use to get around or impede other racers?

Yamamoto, who competed at the 2012 London Paralympics marathon, has taken part in the analysis project since last year. 

The 3-D animation allowed Yamamoto to see how he applies force to his wheelchair and whether he could do so more economically. After seeing it, "I changed my form to get my elbows, wrists and shoulders more involved," he said.

Tsuchida -- who captured her ninth straight women's wheelchair title in the Tokyo Marathon in February -- hopes to win a long-cherished gold medal in the wheelchair marathon in Rio.

Honda Motor started developing wheelchairs in 2003, after it learned that an employee of Honda R&D Sun, which Soichiro Honda founded with the intention of hiring people with disabilities, was competing in the wheelchair marathon. The research was jointly conducted with Honda Motor's Fundamental Technology Research Center, and wheelchairs were commercialized with Saitama-based autoparts maker Yachiyo Industry in 2014.

Honda adopted the carbon fiber technology it used for its Formula One race cars and for the HondaJet. It developed composite material to ensure lightness and absorb impact. And the wheelchair's seat helps to minimize wind resistance, though this can only be optimized after each athlete's lower body is traced by a 3-D scanner.

Four marathoners -- three from Japan and one from South Africa -- will race in Kiwamis in Rio. If they do well, more athletes will likely adopt the chair.

Come 2020, when Tokyo will host the games, the development team is hoping to see Kiwamis all over the marathon course.

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