From blades to wheelchairs, the hi-tech back-up teams keeping athletes on track

Tom Peck visits the 'prosthetics pit-lane' where victories are made and lives changed

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The Independent Online

Three weeks ago, the busiest place in the athletes' village was the hair and beauty salon. Not now.

"We're working shifts, and we'll stay up all night if we have to. Whatever needs to be done, we'll do it," said Donna Fisher, from Ireland. She is one of 80 prosthetists, orthotists and wheelchair technicians, brought in from all over the world, at 13 specialist workshops set up in the village and at competition venues to repair and replace the highly specialised equipment Paralympic athletes depend on.

It is tempting to liken it to the Formula One pit lane, but the vast majority of the athletes are not superstars, and almost none is a millionaire.

"So far we've mainly seen people from Egypt, Colombia and the African countries. They arrive with old prosthetics, ancient wheelchairs. For many of them, this is a big deal, to be seen by qualified people." In the corner of the workshop is a beaten-up wheelchair bearing a sticker that simply says "Do not repair this chair".

"An Egyptian lady came in on it," Ms Fisher explains. "It was beyond salvage, we just gave her a brand new one." Yesterday a Colombian weightlifter was given a shiny new above-the-knee prosthetic, with a Colombian flag on it, which would normally have cost around £7,000. Others have benefited from similar handouts. The company providing the service, Ottobock, is one of a handful operating in this highly specialised area. They are happy to provide the service. There is no other advertising opportunity that comes close.

Only about 60 per cent of the repair work and new equipment handed out at the workshop is for competition. The rest is for every day use.

One Moroccan woman arrived wearing an orthotic on her ankle – a plastic support that goes below the foot and around the calf muscle, to keep a dysfunctional joint in place.

"She'd been using the same one for 18 years," said Walter Grubenmann, from Switzerland, one of 14 technicians at the workshop in the athletes' village. "It was held together with packing tape. That one went in the bin. She's got a completely new one now."

The workshop has already fitted three of the carbon fibre blades worn by the likes of Oscar Pistorius and Great Britain's Jonnie Peacock. They cost around £10,000. Potential Paralympians from poorer countries, who have not made it as far as London, are unlikely to get their hands on them. The Games are a hi-tech business, and with that comes an inevitable barrier to entry in the form of price tag.

Cambodia's one Paralympic athlete, Thin Seng Hon, 28, has bemoaned the fact that disabled people from less wealthy countries are unlikely to claim sporting glory. "I don't expect to win a medal," she told the Jakarta Globe, saying that her opponents will benefit from "more modern prosthetics" costing several times that of her own.

"Yes, funding is always an issue, just like in able-bodied sport," said Ms Fisher. "What the Paralympics is all about is raising the profile of Paralympic sport for people who might want to be here." Those who have made it to the Games, she said, are "the lucky ones". "They have the knowledge that makes all the difference. They know what we do. They'll sit in the foyer for hours, checking out each other's kit, and they'll say 'Oh 'hello. Where did you get that ? I like the look of that. I want that'. Not everyone gets that chance."