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Leshner Fellow Robert Riener, on How the Cybathlon Promotes Awareness of Disability

2016 Cybathlon stadium
The 2016 Cybathlon in Zurich, Switzerland. The 2020 event will see even more teams competing.
Photo credit: ETH Zürich/Nicola Pitaro

This September, nearly 100 international teams comprised of “pilots” who use assistive devices and researchers, 1100 volunteers, and thousands of spectators will converge inside a stadium in Zurich for the second-ever Cybathlon. People with physical disabilities will compete in races that demonstrate how well assistive technologies perform in everyday tasks. This Olympic-style event, which also includes a scientific symposium earlier in the week, was the dream of Robert Riener, a professor of sensory-motor systems at ETH Zurich and a AAAS 2019-20 Leshner Leadership Institute Public Engagement Fellow. “I discovered that the actual needs of people with disabilities do not feed into the development of assistive technologies enough, and conversely that major research discoveries aren’t finding their way into practical application,” said Riener. The Cybathlon, which was first held in 2016, has improved researcher-user connections and led to an entirely new Rehabilitation Initiative at the university, focused on fundamental scientific research and technology.

Riener first had the idea for the Cybathlon in 2013, after reading about a man with a prosthetic leg who climbed the Willis Tower in Chicago. After discussing it with an acquaintance who has a disability, he began to realize that the event shouldn’t focus solely on competitive sports: it should emphasize the everyday tasks that use fine motor skills and can be a daily challenge for people with disabilities. In so doing, they could encourage the advancement of technology to better achieve those tasks. Now, after working for years with teams of researchers and pilots -- people with disabilities who are trained to test the new technology -- Riener believes he has a much better sense of the needs of people with disabilities, and his own research has moved toward assistive devices. He still teaches and manages a lab and estimates he has shifted about 20% of his research time to the Cybathlon (the event is now largely run by a full-time staff of ten).

Leshner Fellow Robert Riener at the 2016 Cybathlon medal ceremony.
Robert Riener at the 2016 Cybathlon medal ceremony. | Credit: ETH Zürich/Nicola Pitaro.

Prior to the Cybathlon, the biggest event Riener had ever organized was a large scientific conference. To get input, he began reaching out to professionals who organize major athletic events in Zurich -- tennis and other championships. They also held a rehearsal event the year before the first Cybathlon, with 30-40 teams of competitors but no spectators, to iron out the logistics and obtain footage for advertising. When he was first reaching out to the research teams, media, and potential sponsors, Riener acknowledges, “You need to be convincing. At the beginning, sometimes people didn’t take it seriously. The sponsors would say, ‘Is it athletics? Is it research? Is it a disability event?’ They were irritated.” For the teams, he adds, “For the first time, how do you convince 70 teams to come to Zurich, with several people, developing something, testing something, spending money for travel, just for an event where you don’t get any money back? And all this for an event no one had ever done before…” (the Cybathlon does provide funding for some teams to come).

To get people on board, Riener had to work on his message: “You have to talk to many people, so they criticize it, and your message becomes more mature, and you get more confident. You can’t develop it in a box at home -- you will look ridiculous.” He had to simultaneously convince teams and sponsors that media would be there and convince the media that there were teams coming. He had some visuals created, and also benefited from the talents of his (at the time) 16-year-old son, who created a video about the Cybathlon that went viral and led to calls from the BBC and CNN, among others (they also got a call from the International Olympic Committee, because they had used an image of an Olympic stadium without permission, so had to take the video down). Riener and his colleagues promoted the Cybathlon at about 30 events over two years – mostly equipping people to bring information about it to events they were going to anyway.

Three-and-a-half years after Riener had the idea, the first Cybathlon was held, alongside the 2016 Olympics. It was a huge success. The event in 2020, which was moved from May to September because of the COVID-19 pandemic, will be held over two days instead of one. His main sponsors are contributing about ten times as much as was needed for the 2016 Cybathlon. Riener has become a well-known face at ETH Zurich and in the larger research community, and he gets many more invitations – enough in fact that he now has an agent. Riener’s team also runs a variety of public outreach programs in schools related to the Cybathlon, which they hope will promote awareness of the challenges faced by people with disabilities and the need for greater inclusion – and which, he says, “…is really the whole point.”

The AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute was founded in 2015 and operates through philanthropic gifts in honor of CEO Emeritus Alan I. Leshner. Each year the Institute provides public engagement training and support to 10-15 mid-career scientists from an area of research at the nexus of science and society