Paraplegic in ‘Iron Man’ suit set for first kick at World Cup

The Rio Report

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The first kicks of World Cups are often remembered, particularly if they are as bad or as hilarious as Diana Ross’s abysmal effort at the 1994 edition in the USA.

So bad was the singer’s penalty kick that the goal had to collapse in farcical fashion as she shot wide, prompting hilarity and no little mocking.

But Brazil’s organisers are going for something much more meaningful and inspirational as this summer’s tournament gets under way on Thursday.

The first kick at the World Cup opening ceremony will be made by a paraplegic wearing an Iron Man-like robotic bodysuit controlled by signals from the brain.

Brazilian doctor Miguel Nicolelis led a team of 156 scientists from around the world to create the futuristic exoskeleton, which was designed to enable paralysis victims to walk.

It really is a wonderful concept and something to which many can aspire.

A paraplegic, whose identity has been kept secret, will leave behind his or her wheelchair to take to the pitch in the suit and give the tournament's first kick.

It will be a huge moment to light up the opening ceremony in Sao Paulo, but how exactly will it work?

Well, electronic circuits in the device's "feet" will send a return signal to the user via an artificial skin worn on the arm, conveying the sensation of movement and contact.

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"It's the first time an exoskeleton has been controlled by brain activity and offered feedback to the patients," Nicolelis, a neuroscientist at Duke University, told AFP.

"Doing a demonstration in a stadium is something very much outside our routine in robotics. It's never been done before."

He added: "In 2009, after we learned Brazil was hosting the World Cup, they asked me for ideas to show Brazil in a different way than the world usually sees it.

“That's when I suggested doing a scientific demonstration to teach people that Brazil is investing and has human potential to do things beyond football.”

There is, however, controversy surrounding the whole idea with the Brazilian government’s research budget strongly criticised in regards to the project.

"The funding is the same with or without the World Cup. We've received $14 million from the Brazilian government over the last two years. That's approximately four or five times less than what the United States government invests in a mechanical arm," he told AFP.

"I don't see anything wrong with demonstrating a technology for the whole world that has a humanitarian objective and was paid for by civil society.”

More than 65,000 people will be in Sao Paulo's Corinthians Arena to watch the first kick of the tournament before Brazil host Croatia, with around a billion expected to take in the occasion via TV.

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