Ben Hackett, a custom seating specialist and rehabilitation engineer from Ottobock, headed off to the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro in summer 2016 to volunteer at the Ottobock Repair Service Centre in the Athlete’s Village, as well as at the smaller workshops in various competition venues. Below is a first-hand account of Ben’s exciting experiences, providing us with a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes at the Paralympic Games.
Ottobock has been the technical sponsor for every Paralympic Games since 1988, providing free-of-charge technical support for all athletes and officials, as well as their families and support teams.
The technical support for Rio 2016 consisted of repair and replacement services regardless of brand or manufacturer across 15 venues, along with 24/7 emergency mobile teams. Ottobock brought together 77 specialist technicians from 29 countries, speaking 26 languages, and provided a service reaching 200 repairs on peak days.
Fifteen thousand spare parts and over 15 tonnes of equipment and machinery travelled over 10,000 km to get to Rio by sea. Fortunately, I had a plane ticket and, once I arrived in Rio, it didn’t take long to meet fellow Ottobock technicians - the green bags instantly gave them away! After a quick check-in at the hotel, a group of us made our way to the main workshop, located within the Athlete’s Village, for a tour and introduction. I was taken aback by the number of technicians rushing around, the reams of equipment awaiting collection, and the sleek modern setup.
Along a whole wall of the workshop was a full rota, with most staff rotating through a 3-day shift pattern from 7am through to 11pm. Another wall featured a global map highlighting the number of repairs technicians had completed at each Paralympics since 1988. A third wall boasted a selection of polaroid photos of happy customers who had received a free repair and had taken the time to pose for a photo with their proud technician.
There were mini workshops at 14 of the competition venues. My first shift began at the workshop in the Athletics Stadium. We carefully unpacked the crate and prepared the workshop to be used over the next two weeks, setting up all the tools, the work bench and organising the spares. Once we had finished, we were allowed onto the track for an obligatory lap, and even a few photos!
That night the team attended the opening ceremony, which was a fantastic spectacle. What might not have come across on TV was the noise of the Brazilian crowd singing and cheering for the teams and athletes throughout the night. It was a privilege to be there within the sea of green Ottobock shirts, despite the 3-hour commute on Brazil’s hectic public transport!
I spent the next few days at the Athletics Stadium workshop, predominantly repairing and adjusting wheelchairs, both for competition and everyday use. It was great soaking up the atmosphere, helping and talking to the athletes, and even watching some of the events after my shift had finished. I also spent a few exciting and eventful days at the Velodrome where the workshop was located right in the centre of the track!
Then I was finally able to spend some time at the main workshop in the Athlete’s Village. With so much more equipment, and its prime location, it was by far the busiest venue, with up to 200 repairs undertaken there every day.
The variety of jobs was vast, from a puncture repair to building a carrier for the Paralympic torch; from adjusting an official’s glasses to re-making a full prosthesis. Most repairs were wheelchair related, with punctures and tyre replacements the most common. Many of these jobs developed into more complex tasks on closer examination of the chair - you might take the wheel off to repair a puncture and realise the wheel spindle was the wrong size! One chair I worked on even had different-sized wheels! It really highlighted for me how wheelchair users in developing countries have to make do, often adapting their own chairs with innovative solutions. It also highlighted how lucky we are in the UK to have a national health service, and state-supplied equipment for those with disabilities.
The workshop was a hectic environment, with a constant stream of new jobs from every nationality, which sometimes made communication difficult. I couldn’t help but feel incredibly proud of what we were doing. Photo above of Ben Hackett working at the 2016 Rio Paralympics as part of the Ottobock repair service team.
To my surprise, every team member was scheduled in small groups to have an afternoon tour comprising of a trip to the top of Christ the Redeemer and a coach ride to all the famous beaches in Rio, including Copacabana and Ipanema. This was a fantastic opportunity and a real treat. I am most grateful to Ottobock for organising this as it provided a unique and unforgettable experience for all of us.
My time in Rio was extremely busy, fulfilling and energising. Seeing first-hand what Paralympians can achieve was inspirational, and being part of a technical team that offered free repairs regardless of brand made a real difference to all the teams. I had one of the most amazing times of my life and met some fantastic people from around the world, many of whom I will continue to stay friends with.
Ottobock’s passion for Paralympics is truly inspirational, and every team member in Rio gave 100% to make a positive impact on the Games.