This chair was built for breaking things. Like rules, stereotypes, and world records.
The ad begins with an image of me pushing a BMW racing chair down a country road. Silent, except for the exaggerated sound of my gloved hands making contact with the push rims and the **whirring** of my wheels. After a few seconds Chris Pine's voice tells us for the first time that the chair I'm in was built for breaking things. The history behind this moment, however, will show you that wheelchair racing was created to show people with disabilities that they were not broken.
Wheelchair racing originated in Stoke Mandeville, England as a rehabilitation activity for WWII veterans who had suffered spinal cord injuries. Prior to the 1940s the average post-accident lifespan of a person suffering a spinal cord injury was only two years due to various medical complications. When Humpty Dumpty fell of the ledge, he was not getting put back together again. He was broken, had little value in society's eyes, and soon died (Little known fact; the word "handicapped" came to be because most people with disabilities got by by begging, with their "cap in hand". Please don't use that word).
Then came the war, and with it an influx of wounded soldiers and advancements in medical procedures. All of a sudden the population of young, previously active men in their 20s who were now wheelchair users, skyrocketed. They were no longer satisfied with remaining broken, and wheelchair racing was one of the first activities offered to them to prove they were still whole.
The broken refused to remain so, and as the 50s rolled in, so did wheelchair racing, popping up across the US and Europe. It was the first time the idea that a wheelchair didn't end your life or value began to extend from a smattering of remarkable individuals to the general population of wheelchair users. To the general public, a wheelchair is a symbol of the old, crippled, and hospitalized, but to this new crop of young wheelchair users, it was a tool to regain life.
At the same time, came the birth of a new sport. Most 400m tracks were covered in cinders, so wheelchair racers would stage races in mall parking lots with the start and finish lines marked in tape. They began by racing in heavy steel wheelchairs, much like the ones you still see in hospitals today, but quickly began modifying them. Racers from the University of Illinois in the 60s began taking hacksaws to their chairs, removing handle bars and superfluous tubing to make their chairs lighter and easier to push. In the late 70s and 80s racers began welding together special chairs in their garages designed specifically for racing. By the late 80s companies began manufacturing the first mass produced "racing wheelchairs," and the technology kept getting better through the 90s as the sport began borrowing ideas and technology from the cycling world.
In a few decades the sport had grown from a rehabilitative activity, to an international sport ripe with elite level athletes and amazing races. Humpty Dumpty was consistently being put back together again, and despite using a tool that the general public still associates with a hospital, Humpty Dumpty kept getting stronger and faster.
This chair was built for breaking things. To remind us that limits is just a little thing that makes a swhooshing sound when you blow past it.
When I was asked in February of 2014 if I wanted to fly to LA to speak to a team of BMW engineers about possibly building a racing chair, I couldn't get my response out fast enough. YES.
I am far too young to have experienced that jump in racing technology from the garage to the commercial manufacturer, but I came in at the perfect time to see the advancement in technology stall out during the 2000s. The basic three-wheeled frame that I used in 2006 looked and functioned remarkably similar to the frame I was using a decade later. Racing wheelchairs are not quite the money maker that bicycles are, and there is not nearly the same population of well-off weekend warriors willing to shell out big bucks for a carbon fiber frame, thus supporting the market and increasing the value of the elites who get their gear for free, in the the wheelchair racing world. As the world of tech on wheels made the jump from aluminum to carbon fiber, the wheelchair racing world was slow to follow.
There had been some outlying attempts to revolutionize the chair. Honda began building chairs out of carbon fiber in the mid 2000s and British Aerospace attempted an ambitious project in the leadup to the London Paralympics in 2012, but the Honda was only available to in Japan (it has since been made available to anyone), and the British led project never saw the light of day. The majority of manufacturers did not have the research and design budgets to support their own forays into alternative materials.
It is therefore easy to understand why I had a goofy smile glued to my face the first day I spent with BMW, teaching a few of their engineers about wheelchair racing, the equipment, and our issues with the equipment. It is why my heart skipped a few months later when I learned that BMW was going to design racing chairs for the Rio Paralympics. BMW, with it's vast wealth of knowledge, resources, R&D, and manufacturing capabilities was going to build a racing chair. That was my heaven. I heard the swooshing sound as we flew by limits like they were standing still.
A year and a half after the project began a handful of American athletes are pushing the first generation of the BMW racing chair. Though while only a handful of athletes are fortunate enough to push this chair in its first race-ready iteration, the presence of such a company in the racing world has already begun spurring innovation in other racing chair manufacturers, and has garnered attention to the sport far beyond the crowds that were already in on the secret of this incredible sport.
This chair was built for breaking things. A tool designed by the world's best engineers to dismantle, destroy, and dominate. Driven by will of steel and destined to chase gold.
BMW was just supposed to build us industry changing racing chairs. I had no idea that BMW really did mean to break things; to break stereotypes, ideas, beliefs. In the growing trend of official Olympic sponsors seeking equanimity between Olympians and Paralympians in the makeup of their sponsor teams, BMW took it a step further. They weren't just sponsoring Parlaympians, they were going to promote and feature them.
The marketing and public relations people responsible for this project did something that most people with disabilities rarely experience; they listened and learned. From the beginning of this project BMW has been invested in diving into the sport and culture of wheelchair racing, both to be able to build the best chair possible, but also to be able to market their athletes in a manner befitting their accomplishments. When they came to us and presented their ideas for messaging and asked our opinions on words used and certain phrasing they not only listened to what we have to say, but they absorbed it, learned, and acted accordingly.
The language in this commercial is the epitome of that effort. Go back and watch the ad again. Is the word "wheelchair" ever used? We are, in fact, wheelchair racers, though as we discussed before, the word "wheelchair" evokes negative imagery that does not jive with either the BMW brand or actual people who use wheelchairs. "Chair," however, is unattached. A chair is something that can be cool and edgy in a way that a "wheelchair," at least at this point in time, is not allowed to be.
To take the messaging further, BMW understood that they were building a "tool" for us to useto maximize our performance. BMW is in the market of performance tools. Have you ever driven, or been driven around in a BMW M3? That thing screams performance (you just may not be able to hear it over your own screams of terror and pleasure as you power slide around a bend). The concept that a racing chair was as much a performance tool to a wheelchair racer as the car is to an F1 driver was easy for them to make, but a powerful one to share with the world.
In short they decided to say, "We are BMW. We now build wheelchairs, but we by absolutely no means make medical devices. It is time for you to put down your antiquated beliefs and realize that this wheelchair is a tool designed to be used by athletes with remarkable abilities, to dominate, destroy, and win." (Insert mic drop here)
This chair was built for breaking things. To reimagine, rethink and redifine what it means to be an athlete.
It took a long time for people to begin to listen to the broken bodies that came out of World War Two, or the broken bodies that followed. We shouted as loud as we could, "WE ARE NOT BROKEN," but those who listened soon forgot, and many more never heard us. Led by those with wills of steel, however, we reimagined, rethought and redefined what it meant to be broken, to have value, or to be an athlete. Like every other minority group we have been forced to bootstrap our way into relevance, and shout until our throats are raw to be heard. As athletes we stand arm in arm with every other athlete who happens to be anything other than male and able-bodied, and we continue to show that we should be considered "athletes" free of further signifiers, parameters, addendums, or amendments.
This may just be an ad for a car company, however the message it sends is powerful. In only the second time in the history of BMW North America they have released an ad without a car and in that ad they chose to feature a person with a disability as an elite athlete. That is a powerful message, by a powerful company.
With the ad running again in the Closing Ceremonies of the Olympics, after two weeks that unveiled harrowing news about the financial capabilities of the host city to even carry out a Paralympics (more to come in a blog later this week), the weight of this ad and its message feels greater.
And once every limit has been passed, every expectation smashed, and every record broken, together we will have built something great.
The ultimate driving machine.
This is just the beginning. Our equipment, our sport, and our recognition as athletes is improving exponentially. It is an exciting time to race. We are building something great, in sport and in the perception of an entire group of historically undervalued individuals.
The Olympics may be over, but the Paralympics have yet to begin. Let's go break things!