Ottobock’s repair shop is an integral part of ParalympicsAway from the stadiums, it’s the most hectic place at the Paralympic Games - a white warehouse on a corner of the athletes’ village in Pyeongchang County, Gangwon, where a team of technicians hustle around the clock to carve, weld and sew near piles of bionic hands, feet and knees.
Here, a team of 23 international specialists employed by Germany’s Ottobock are asked to fix anything and everything - from wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs to sleds and sit-skis.
The unpredictable and pressure-filled job highlights the vital role of devices at the highest level of para-sports.
“At the moment, it’s absolutely quiet, but you never know,” said Peter Franzel, a director at Ottobock. “In two minutes, the door opens and 10 athletes come in with a problem and we’re suddenly very, very busy.”
Franzel spoke as a pair of technicians hammered, stretched and sawed off the ski poles of a Swiss athlete who wanted them shortened. Others worked to fix a pair of wheelchair tires and frames.
Ottobock, which has provided exclusive and free repair services to Paralympic athletes since the 1988 Seoul Games, has brought more than 8,000 spare parts to Korea’s second Paralympic Games in 30 years, including wheelchair components, artificial limbs, knee joints and rubber crutches.
As of Wednesday, Ottobock’s technicians have handled more than 300 repairs at the Paralympic Games, which began on March 9 and continue through Sunday. The company expects the number of repairs to exceed 400 by the Games’ end, said spokeswoman Merle Florstedt.
The technicians at Pyeongchang come from nine countries, including the United States, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Korea, Japan and China. Translators assist with communication between technicians and athletes.
“We do have to be very creative in how we find solutions for these patients because with so many different parts and pieces, we have to be very inventive on what we are going to do,” said John Spillar, one of Ottobock’s American specialists who previously worked at the Parapan American Games and Invictus Games.
About 60 to 70 percent of the repairs so far have been wheelchairs, simply because so many of the 670 athletes at Pyeongchang rely on them, said Franzel.
Some jobs are easier than others. The first repair job at Pyeongchang was super-gluing the broken frame of the glasses an athlete had dropped, Franzel said. Canada’s chef de mission, Todd Nicholson, wanted the length of his parka trimmed before the opening ceremony.
The more complex repairs come from sports like fast and physical ice hockey games where players fly around the ice on lightweight aluminum sleds while banging into each other at high speeds.
On Tuesday, Spillar had just finished fixing a broken sled for an Italian hockey player. Spillar said he had to re-weld both sides of the device, create a new pipe and attach additional struts to strengthen rigidity.
The most difficult challenge so far has been the case of Croatian cross-country skier Josip Zima, who came to the repair shop angry and fearful that he might not be able to compete at the games at all. His team had sent Zima the wrong sit-ski and there was no way he could fit into the much smaller device that originally belonged to a female teammate.
“We were going to do everything that we could to get him out there on the field,” Spillar said.
It took five technicians about eight hours to completely take the device apart and create an entirely new one that Zima could compete in. Metal bars and tubing were welded into the frame to expand the device. The technicians also had to realign the entire chair so that it could support the heavier Zima, which required installing additional struts and supports.
Sadly, the new device broke apart during the men’s 1.1-kilometer sprint at on Wednesday. Zima improvised and finished the race in last place.