When it comes to repairing the specialized equipment of Paralympic athletes, technicians experiment with the latest technologies on the spot, even though their work can often mean the difference between success and failure.
Hiroki Nakajima, one of two Japanese technicians who worked on athletes’ wheelchairs and prosthetics during the Pyeongchang Winter Games, was inspired as a child by an American woman who turned a life-changing tragedy into a thriving wheelchair business.
Armed with knowledge that can improve the lives of athletes and people with disabilities, Nakajima has his eyes set on his fifth Paralympic Games in Tokyo in 2020, where he hopes to yet again help participants achieve their dreams.
“Every repair is important, and no repair comes without pressure. But there’s something special about working on the equipment of athletes. It’s challenging,” the 43-year-old wheelchair specialist said in a recent interview. “It gives me joy whenever the athletes are happy with the repairs. If they can compete with their minds at ease, they can deliver their best results.”
In Pyeongchang there was a repair center and several satellite booths near competition venues operated by Ottobock, a world-leading manufacturer of wheelchairs and artificial limbs. The German company has been sending repair specialists to the Paralympics since the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul and is expected to do the same in Tokyo.
It began with four technicians in South Korea in 1988. Thirty years later, in the same country, a group of 23 specialists from nine countries carried out 410 repairs. They handle many requests from athletes, and because the repairs are free, competitors are always keen to tap their skills.
Nakajima worked at the Summer Games in Beijing in 2008, London in 2012 and the Sochi Winter Games in 2014.
“In a way, the Paralympics are a place to experiment with new possibilities, so there’s a lot we have to adjust to in terms of repairs,” he said. “The difficult thing about this job is we have to come up with the best way to repair something instantly. But that’s also the fun part of our job and what we’re good at.”
In Pyeongchang, a French skier asked that the wheels of his chair be replaced so he could navigate on the snow without slipping. A group of Japanese hockey players had their footwear mended.
A Croatian skier brought an ill-fitting sit-ski into the repair center. With the tools on hand, the technicians disassembled parts of it, fixed it and got him out in time to compete.
Nakajima says the workload at the Summer Games, however, is beyond comparison. In Rio de Janeiro in 2016, 100 technicians and staff made more than 2,400 repairs before and during the 12-day Paralympics.
“Repairs come in all day during the Summer Games, and we are all trying hard to keep up,” Nakajima said.
In addition to the larger number of athletes and events, summer sports tend to be harder on the equipment than winter sports, he says. Athletes intentionally collide or fall in team sports like wheelchair basketball and rugby, resulting in the need for many repairs.
He expects the Tokyo Paralympics will be just as hectic, if not more. Although he has not officially been appointed to a position, he is wasting no time in preparing to stay ahead of the curve.
“Every wheelchair manufacturer is working really hard to improve. We can’t offer our best service unless we keep up with the latest information,” Nakajima said.
“A Toyota engineer won’t be blamed for not knowing how to fix a Nissan. But that doesn’t apply at the Paralympics,” he said. “We have to know about all manufacturers — not just Ottobock — and be able to fix all kinds of products.”
If selected to work in 2020, Nakajima will have more experience than many of the other engineers, so he expects to assume more responsibilities. He also hopes to help foreign technicians get acclimated to Japan.
Nakajima works in sales at the Tokyo branch of Ottobock and visits retail stores and hospitals around the country. He joined the company in 2001, but the idea of working in the industry came to him when he was growing up in Osaka.
His interest grew when, as an elementary school student, he watched a documentary about Paralympic sports and wheelchair technology campaigner Marilyn Hamilton.
Hamilton, a successful entrepreneur, was injured and left a paraplegic after a hang-gliding accident in 1978. She struggled to adjust to her cumbersome wheelchair but turned her situation around by creating a lightweight, colorful and high-performance chair of her own, which she went on to develop, manufacture and sell.
“I was shocked as a kid,” Nakajima said. “She might’ve been overwhelmed by her circumstances, but a small change was just enough to make someone very happy. I was amazed.”
He studied mechanical engineering at a university in Tokyo and was surprised to find that the technology he was studying had not been applied to wheelchairs, especially when he saw the quality of the chairs being used.
“When I saw them, I was shocked, like, ‘Is this the level of Japanese wheelchairs?’ They were really behind the times,” he said. “The technology I was studying was so different from the level of equipment people with disabilities were using. I couldn’t believe it.”
That was when Nakajima’s mission started to take shape.
“The things we use are improving every day. New, stylish, cool products hit the market constantly, but I couldn’t see that coming from the (mobility) industry at that time,” he said. “They were made in a way so they wouldn’t stand out. Like they were something that should be hidden from view.”
On the other hand, he saw that foreign manufacturers were focused on giving their clients confidence and enjoyment by making innovative, design-oriented products. This approach is what attracted him to Ottobock.
The difference between Japanese and foreign products has diminished in the past 20 years, he says, with Japanese manufacturers adding their own touches to make products more user-friendly. He hopes this momentum will grow further.
“I feel like wheelchairs are making a big shift from something that people are forced to use, to a tool that enables people to live full lives. Wheelchair users used to be pitied,” Nakajima said.
“There may even be a day when wheelchairs become something that people want to use as a fashion statement, just like glasses.”
For Nakajima, the Paralympics have more value than simply being the sporting world’s showpiece event for people with disabilities.
“I think one of the missions of the games is to improve the perception of people with wheelchairs,” he said. “It’s great that my repairs contributed to solving some of the problems the athletes are facing. The Paralympics are where athletes gun for a better life, so it’s a real honor and a reward to be able to support them.”