Otto Bock Paralympics Repair Workshop: Technicians Find Creative Solutions for Athletes

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By Miki Fairley

For several years, Otto Bock HealthCare, headquartered in Duderstadt, Germany, has provided the exclusive repair service for orthotic and prosthetic devices and wheelchairs at the Paralympics. The company generously offers its services free to athletes from all the participating countries.

Otto Bock CEO Hans Georg Näder said that the company didn't just want to support one team in Athens. "We want to make our experience and competence available to athletes from all over the world." He added, "The athletes participate in the competitions with high-tech prostheses and special competition wheelchairs. We take care that nobody has to dispense with the start due to technical problems."

Over 100 Otto Bock technicians and specialists supported the athletes at the 23 competition locations, providing over 2,000 services. And, as you can imagine, they have interesting stories to tell!

Before the games even began, more than 900 repairs were requested. Technicians from all continents collaborated in the workshop. Some countries, including the Netherlands and New Zealand, brought their own service teams but collaborated with Otto Bock's workshop.

Often the technicians had to come up with unorthodox solutions, since it was impossible to have all spare parts in stock, especially for older equipment. For example, Jens Mueller from Germany sawed off a broomstick to turn it into a joystick for a wheelchair. When the backrest of another athlete's wheelchair broke, it was welded into shape at Otto Bock's main workshop, but needed a cover fabric. Then New Zealand technician Ross Mason spotted a suit bag and cut out a piece for a perfectly designed custom backrest.

The Iranian national wheelchair basketball team faced a plight just one day before their first game: spacer washers between the frames and seats of their wheelchairs were missing! The wheelchairs were disassembled for air transport, and somehow the washers were left behind. Organizing spare parts for the entire team tested the technicians' improvisational ability, but they succeeded.

An athlete from the small Rwanda team needed help with his below-knee prosthesis, which was broken at the shin. Tape and screws held it together; the Otto Bock team provided new parts to restore it to its former functionality.

Some athletes from developing nations arrived with old, rusty wheelchairs and other worn-out, damaged equipment. "...These people are evidently asking for the workshop's services because the services are not available to them in their home countries or because they cannot finance them," noted the company. "Our team tries to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and help." However, sometimes some rather audacious requests had to be refused--for instance, exchanging a wooden prosthesis for a high-tech C-Leg®!

How did the participating technicians feel about the workshop? "Even though it was really hard work, we had a lot of fun," said Willem Moes from the Netherlands. "Yeah, that was great--a beautiful team!" agreed Mueller.

Sponsoring Disability Sports

Another notable event was the signing of a partnership agreement between Otto Bock and the German disability association, Deutschen Behindertensportverband, in which Otto Bock will help promote disability sports through a sponsorship of over 40,000 euros through the end of the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing, China. German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who was visiting the Paralympics, witnessed the contract signing by Näder and the disability association chairman. Näder and his wife Antje also enjoyed the flight to Athens with Schröder onboard the chancellor's executive government aircraft. While in Athens, the chancellor also took a test drive of the newly launched Otto Bock "Super Four" outdoor wheelchair at the German school in Athens and saw the award ceremony for German athlete Wojtek Czyz who won the 200-meter sprint in world-record time.

All in all, the Athens Paralympics was a truly memorable event for the entire Otto Bock team as well as all those participating in the 2004 Games.

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