Disability

Rio 2016: The people who fix broken legs at the Paralympics

Wheelchair being repaired Image copyright Getty Images

Inside the athletes' village at the Paralympics is a centre that works around the clock to ensure medals can be won - but not a single athlete or coach works there.

It's an often forgotten fact of Paralympic life that wheelchairs will crash into each other, running blades will hammer into the athletics track and buckle, and ankle braces will wear away.

Breakages, and lots of them, happen at the Paralympic Games - and they need fixing quickly.

But Paralympians have no need to fear. Inside the athlete's village is a safety net, an emergency repairs centre for all they need to get them back up and operational if screws come loose, or some extra welding is required.

It's like the pit lane in Formula 1, but the difference is in Formula 1 it's just "tyres and gas", says Anna Parisi, director of communications at the centre.

Here, the technicians have to be extremely flexible - they could be a fixing a sitting chair for a discus thrower one minute, mending a worn leather orthotic the next. They've even had somebody bring in their split cycling shorts.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image copyright Getty Images

Parisi explains: "It's important that whatever [the competitors] need from when they get up in the morning to going to bed at night, whether it's competition or just going about their daily routine, we're providing the technical support and making sure that's working for them."

The centre is run by Ottobock, one of the biggest mobility production companies in the world, whose headquarters are in Germany.

In order to make the Rio operation happen, 18 tonnes of equipment has been shipped 6,000 miles (9,656km) from Germany to Brazil.

That includes 16,000 spare parts, 1,100 wheelchair tyres and 70 running blades - all transported by sea.

And in that inner sanctum in Rio, you can see the controlled sense of urgency, with technicians welding, sewing and moulding - all to meet the demands of the athletes. They've been kept so busy that they have carried out 2,970 repairs so far.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Syrian refugee Ibrahim al-Hussein receives assistance with his prosthetic leg

Paul Beaudoin, a technician from the Netherlands working his second Games, says: "The equipment we see has advanced even since London 2012."

Not only is the technology more advanced but the athletes are now more professional. The forces they exert on their equipment means they're doing more damage.

Whereas at London 2012 there were slow periods in the emergency repair room, it has been flat out in Rio ever since the Paralympians moved into the athletes' village.

Inside it works like a hospital: people are initially assessed to see how urgent the repair is. Then a technician will talk to them and, based on that advice, the athlete will either stay or go away and return later. If they're a wheelchair user they'll be loaned a replacement wheelchair while the repair takes place.

Opening hours are officially 7:30am to 11pm but if a repair comes in "out of hours" there will always be a technician on hand.

It takes dedication, and the technicians I meet seem to really have this. There are two or three helping each other out or talking things through together. Some are veterans (having worked at more than one Games), passing their expertise on to others.

They're aware that their work be the difference between success and failure for a medal hopeful.

And it turns out it's quite a tough selection process to get here, so the ones who make it are seen as the "creme de la creme" in the field, chosen for their ability to work under pressure, be creative and not be daunted by what they see.

That final point is an important one, Beaudoin says, as sometimes techicians have never encountered the very precise equipment that a certain Paralympian might wear or use in the quest for sporting glory.

"We see some crazy things. People wearing braces we would have seen in the UK or Netherlands 50 years ago. We ask them shall we make a new one but they say 'no, leave it, polish it a little bit, make it a little bit more comfortable'."

At the other end of the scale they see the latest in Paralympic sporting technology which is what he personally most enjoys working on.

"Wheelchair racing chairs. If they come in I'm like 'nice'," he says. "They're advanced and finer and I really like the aesthetics of them."

Whether it is fixing a broken piece of metal on Dame Sarah Storey's spare bike or a new prosthetic leg socket for Syrian refugee Ibrahim al-Hussein, these unseen technicians are able to look up any time a medal is handed out and count the hundreds of time they have made a difference.

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