A repair center for wheelchairs and prosthetics is helping Tokyo Paralympic athletes chase their dreams in the Japanese capital, allowing them to compete in top form even if their equipment breaks before their competitions.
About 100 technicians and staff from 23 countries are working day and night at a large facility in the athletes' village and 14 satellite booths at venues, equipped with different types of machinery and over 17,000 spare parts.
"Our role is all about supporting athletes who are competing at the Paralympics from behind the scenes," said Shunjun Takahashi, a Japanese prosthetist working at the repair center. "It is important for us to do whatever we can to help athletes and contribute to these games."
The center, operated by Ottobock, a global manufacturer of wheelchairs and artificial limbs headquartered in Germany, expects to carry out about 2,000 repairs for free, ranging from replacing wheelchair tires to welding metal frames, until Sept. 8, three days after the Paralympics end.
"It's a huge responsibility to be part of this. But it's also a very rewarding job, and you can see the joy of the athletes after they get their repairs done," said Takahashi, whose role in Tokyo is talking to Paralympians and examining their equipment to determine what needs to be fixed.
The technicians have performed about 1,000 repair and maintenance operations since the village opened in mid-August. Usually, wheelchair-related repairs make up 80 percent of the total.
While they accept requests to fix competition equipment made by other manufacturers, the technicians also repair items used in daily life. The 18 tons of machinery at the center even allows them to create new equipment to assist competitors on and off the field.
Peter Franzel, who manages the center, said one "challenging" request came from the Tokyo Games organizing committee, which asked for equipment to enable athletes without arms to act as flagbearers at the opening ceremony on Aug. 24.
The team of technicians devised special fabric "backpacks" with metal pipes into which flagpoles could be inserted, allowing the athletes to carry their flags into the National Stadium.
"It was something special and this was interesting to manufacture and produce, and it was also very rewarding to see the athletes coming in at the opening ceremony," said Franzel, who is working at his seventh Paralympics.
Ottobock has been operating such facilities since the 1988 Seoul Paralympics. Starting with just a few people in South Korea, the centers are now an essential part of the Paralympics with more technicians and state-of-the-art machinery, which in Tokyo includes a 3-D printer.
"We have the experience. We gained experience from games to games and we know what equipment is used, we know what material is used, we learn every day to be better than the day before and the games before," Franzel said.
Technological progress has helped athletes reach higher levels of performance over the years. They use different types of equipment depending on the sport and their disability, ranging from running blades to eye masks, racing wheelchairs and high-tech handcycles.
Such equipment can break at crucial times so staff are available at satellite booths at venues to assist athletes before or even during competition.
Heinrich Popow, a former sprinter and long jumper, said his prosthetic leg broke five minutes before his 100-meter event at the 2012 London Paralympics, but he managed to get it fixed at the repair center and won a gold medal that "changed my whole life."
He said it is reassuring for athletes to know that the center is there when they need it. Some athletes in Tokyo have visited the facility a day before their competitions to tighten screws on their equipment to feel more confident and ready.
"Remembering myself when I attended the village, I was looking for my apartment, I was looking for the dining hall and I was looking for the Ottobock repair center," said the German, who now works as an ambassador for the company.
About 4,400 athletes from around 160 countries and regions are competing at the Tokyo Paralympics, which are being held following a one-year postponement due to the coronavirus pandemic.
While major teams bring their own mechanics to the games, those from developing countries often do not have the luxury to do so, making the facility all the more important for athletes to shine in sport and in daily life.
Having also worked at the Rio de Janeiro Paralympics five years ago, Takahashi said he feels like the facility in Tokyo has been less busy so far.
He thinks that athletes may be refraining from going out for minor maintenance and repairs because of concern about the coronavirus.
Nevertheless, Takahashi, an employee of the manufacturer's Japan branch, is excited to offer a helping hand to athletes who are aiming to make their dreams come true in Tokyo.
"What I like about working at the repair center is that the repairs can make a difference and athletes really thank us for our work," he said.