Full transcript: Off-piste at the Paras #6: The fixers - 13 March 2018
MUSIC - Off Piste at the Paras, from the Winter Paralympics in Pyeongchang. With Beth Rose
BETH - So we have actually come off piste today for Off Piste at the Paras, but simultaneously we're also closer to the athletes than we've really been the whole Games. We're in the middle of the Athlete's Village and we're in Ottobock which looks after all the athletes' equipment, and sometimes maybe even their glasses as well. and I'm with Managing Director, Peter Franzel, who is running it here. So tell me what Ottobock is, what you do?
PETER - So yes, Ottobock has been with the Paralympic Games for 30 years. We started a technical service in '88 when for the first time ever four technicians got the idea, "Okay, there are people with disabilities using protheses, wheelchairs, they are going to compete, we'll go there and there might be some things to do."
Ever since then we have done the technical service and now it's in Pyeongchang we're returning to Korea after 30 years. We have a much larger team and a much more professional setting, so we have a complete workshop here, we can do any metalwork, we can do sewing, we can do welding, we can do adjustments. So we are here to serve the athletes.
BETH - Obviously you look after their wheelchairs and their legs for competition, but also you've had a few more curious requests about trouser length and jackets. Tell me a bit about who's come in with those requests?
PETER - Yes. The athletes know Ottobock is very helpful and we have a lot of techniques here, so if they have any problems they come to see us. For example, funny was the first repair here in Pyeongchang was a pair of glasses. A woman came in, she'd dropped her glasses and the frame was broken and she was frustrated because she couldn't see good anymore, and we said, "No problem, we have some kind of superglue." And we glued it together and she was happy and could go on.
And also we had an athlete from Poland, his trolley, there was one wheel went off and we had a kind of similar wheel for the front wheels for the wheelchair, so we gave him one of those and he was able to carry his trolley again. So these are the things that we do, curious, but we love to help the athletes.
BETH -Do you say no to anything?
PETER - Not so far, we always try. When someone comes in with a problem we try to invent something, we try to be flexible to fix all problems and so far we've managed to do it.
BETH - I had a real problem with my phone charger last night, I feel like maybe I should have brought it along.
PETER - [laughs] We will have a look.
BETH - It's just got really busy, so a few people have just left in, I'm guessing fixed wheelchairs, because they've been sat in the waiting room.
PETER - Yes.
BETH - So what's the kind of most common damage to a wheelchair that you have to look after?
PETER - In general, the wheelchair is the most used product here because a lot of the athletes use wheelchairs. Prosthesis, orthosis is not so, and then we have the visually impaireds, they don't need any technical equipment. So we have a lot of wheelchairs and so we see a lot of wheelchairs in here. What's also very typical for the Games is that because of these pin trading habits wheelchair users sometimes roll over a pin and then the tyre is flat, and so we see a lot of flat tyres here.
BETH - But you're wearing some pins.
PETER - Yes.
BETH - You could cause more damage.
PETER - I take care of my pins.
BETH - Which sport is worst for damaging the equipment?
PETER - Para ice hockey. It's a really rough sport, they are very brutal, there's banging together and they have these fractures relatively often. The frames have a crack or they are bent and so we are here to bend them in a straight position or even to weld broken parts.
BETH - And do they have to come back to the Athlete's Village and give you their equipment, or do you have engineers out at the ice hockey?
PETER - We also have a workshop down at the Gangneung Hockey Centre where we also operate the welding unit, so either they will bring the equipment here or we can also repair it in the venue.
BETH - Does it ever get too busy?
PETER - Sometimes when we have a lot of athletes we need to prioritise if it's urgent or not. Sometimes we have athletes, they need it for competition and they need to have it fixed by 20 minutes, one hour, then they are in the fast lane. And sometimes you have athletes, they have time for the repair then they will get a loaned wheelchair from us and they come back in in three, four or five hours.
BETH - Tell me a bit about how long you're open. It's a long time isn't it? It's a long day.
PETER - We open the same as the Village is open, so from eight in the morning until nine in the evening, so we work on two shifts here and we opened also when the Village was opened on 2nd March, so long before the opening ceremony. When all the teams arrived we see quite a lot of damage through travel and transport, so with the wheelchairs or with other parts.
Then all the athletes will love to check their equipment before they start with competition, before they start with training. So before opening it's quite busy here, and during the Games we see them after competition or after training in the afternoon when they come back to the Village. We'll see a lot of repairs then.
BETH - It's suddenly got a bit busy again, I think some of Team Germany are just turning up to be filmed and to get some stuff checked over maybe. Has there been anything that you've not been able to fix or that you're trying to work out as a team what you can do?
PETER - Not so far. We have some challenges where we really need competence from all technicians or from three or four technicians to sit together and really think about how can we solve this problem, how can we find the best solution? But until now we've managed to repair everything in every way.
BETH - Have you had any of the medallists who have had like a last-minute panic to get something fixed and then they've ended up on the podium?
PETER - Not in these Games but in former Games we have, so until now we have had maybe one overnight situation where a cross country athlete from Croatia, he was here and he was shipped the wrong size of the sitting frame, so he didn't fit in and this was one day before his training and then two days before competition. So we had to take it apart completely and rebuild it to make it wider and longer. And this was a bit time crucial, we had to do some late-night work. They finished I think at two o'clock in the morning.
BETH - Wow.
PETER - But this is why we are here, you know, you cannot say, "No, I have to go for dinner," we have to take care of the equipment, and if this is an overnight job then we do an overnight job.
BETH - Let's talk a little bit about money, because how much do these kind of prosthetics and wheelchairs cost?
PETER - It's a wide range. So for a prosthetic if we have a basic mechanical knee joint it will be around 2,000 euros, 3,000 euros. If we talk about a microprocessor-controlled knee joint that gives you much more safety and you are able to go back to work to really be part of social life again, then we're talking about 30,000 euros to 40,000 euros.
BETH - And is the technology getting more expensive or cheaper, as sort of the technology develops?
PETER - The technology is getting cheaper, yes, because production is more, and in general technology is getting cheaper. You know, the first phase of a product you have a lot of cost in the research and development, but then these costs are gone, you just reproduce it and then the prices will lower.
BETH - And is there anything that's been worked on at the moment, kind of like the next generation of equipment?
PETER - Yes, Ottobock, since one hundred years we are working on solutions for people with disability with limited movement and we will never stop. The aim is to make the lives of people as much easy as possible. If you miss a leg we try to compensate this with technique and this technique needs to benefit the user. So we talk a lot to users, "What do you think would you need or what is something you wish for your prosthesis? What should it be feeling like?" or whatsoever. And so we always try to get better and better products for those persons.
BETH - And you yourself are based in Germany at the Ottobock operation. What does Ottobock do? Or what do you do when there isn't the Paralympics on?
PETER - The Paralympics for sure is the most exciting and largest event, but for example after down here in Pyeongchang I will fly to Australia because there is the Commonwealth Games where Ottobock is doing also the technical service for wheelchairs, prostheses and orthosis and I will set up the workshop there.
BETH - That sounds really busy because it's quite unusual that these two competitions have come so close together. Do you go home at all or is the whole team just going straight to Australia?
PETER - No, I have a different team because it's summer sport and after four weeks here the team is already a bit tired. [laughs] So I send them home and we have fresh technicians from Australia, from down under, they will take care on this repair service centre.
MUSIC This has been a Winter Paralympics podcast brought to you by BBC Ouch from Pyeongchang in South Korea. You can email the team, email@example.com or tweet @bbcouch.