December 3 is International Day of Persons with Disabilities - a day we reflect on how we can ensure the rights and well-being of persons with disabilities and ensure disability inclusion in our society. In researching #IDPD, I was reminded of a fascinating profile I read earlier this year during the Paralympic Games in Tokyo about Ottobock - a leading global supplier of prosthetics and orthotics. They are also a Worldwide Partner of the International Paralympic Committee. At every Paralympic Games since the 1988 Paralympic Games in Seoul, Ottobock has offered a technical repair centre where any Paralympian can go for free wheelchair, prosthetic or other equipment repairs.
In Tokyo, the Ottobock Repair Center, located in the Paralympic Village, was over 700 square meters and had a team of 106 people. Ottobock brought 17,000 spare parts and 18 tons of machinery to Japan and handled between 80-90 repairs a day.
After marveling at the size and scale of the Ottobock Center, I wondered about other logistics, in addition to technical repairs, that the Canadian Paralympic Committee (CPC) oversees to bring Team Canada to a Paralympic Games. So I connected with Catherine Gosselin-Després, the Executive Director of Sport at the CPC, to ask her.
PumpTalk: Thank you so much for talking with me, Catherine! Can you tell me a bit about your role at the CPC?
Catherine Gosselin-Després: As the Executive Director of Sport, I'm basically accountable for all of Team Canada on site. To bring them there and make sure that we're in good condition to compete. Anything to do with the Paralympic Village and with relations with our national sport organizations, which could include coaches, athletes, the support team, etc., would be under me.
PT: What are some of the logistic issues that you’re dealing with at the Paralympic Games?
CD: I have a great team that does day-to-day relations with the organizing committee and our National Sport organizations. If you’re a coach or an athlete and there was an issue with equipment or anything Games related, you’d work with my team to try to find a solution. But it’s not just equipment, right? We’re problem solvers. There could be an issue with transport to a venue, or even with flags. We do everything Games-related; we interact with the Games’ Organizing Committee and then pass on all the information and processes to the sport teams.
PT: What is coordinating transportation like?
CD: In most Paralympic sports there’s a lot of equipment. We need a lot of space on the plane. Wheelchair users have their daily chair but also have one or two competitive chairs. A typical athlete might have three to four pieces of luggage plus two or three extra pieces of equipment. And then once all the equipment arrives at the Games, we get it from the airport to the village and also each sport venues as required.
PT: You mentioned flags. I’ve always wondered how you accommodate the Opening and Closing Ceremony flag bearers’ different disabilities.
CD: That’s a great point. Ottobock actually has different assistive devices to help flag bearers, depending on the impairment. For example, Brent Lakatos who was the flag bearer in the Closing Ceremony in Tokyo went to the Ottobock Repair Center the day before the Closing Ceremony to get a holder affixed to his chair, which he could slide the flag into. The next day, he went back and they removed it.
For Priscilla Gagné, our visually impaired Opening Ceremony flag bearer, Ottobock created a cross-body holder to support the flag while she was waiting. Then, when she marched out, she could easily take the flag out of the holder to carry it.
PT: So Ottobock helps with more than repairs?
CD: Yes. Repairs. Assisting devices for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. Honestly, they pretty much do anything we need. They are quite helpful. For example, our wheelchair rugby team needs welding all the time when they compete outside of the Games. So they will do on the spot repairs and source local service providers but in the Games they can go to the Ottobock Repair Center. If an athlete’s running leg or jumping leg breaks, they will go and get a better fit. Or even their daily prosthetic. Prosthetic users sometimes could have an infection around where they had the amputation and when they’re on it for a long time. Sometimes they just need an extra bit of cushioning or something more complex to be fixed. And in wheelchair racing, athletes will go in to get their gloves fixed as another example. Ottobock does a wide range of services. It’s really helpful to us as it saves my team from trying to find our own providers when we are onsite in Tokyo, or Beijing or Paris.
PT: When you’re on site at a Paralympic Games, what else is your team responsible for?
CD: We set up the whole Canadian space in the Paralympic village; we have a health-clinic, a gym, a recovery area, a concierge, offices, meeting rooms – basically building a hotel for our Team from scratch. We take it over from the Canadian Olympic Committee and then we’ll make some adjustments for accessibility needs. It’s a pretty big operation. We get there, set it up for a month and then take it all down. It takes years of planning to set it up. Then we pack it all up again for the next Games. Anything we don’t need – clothes, furniture, food – we work with our cargo company to find local charities or other groups that we can donate the items to. We also support our teams with any sport technical information from the organizing committee that they may need for an optimal Games planning and execution.
PT: How did COVID impact your on-site operations?
CD: There were a lot of rules we needed to follow. We hired a hospital-grade disinfection company that went in ahead of our arrival and stayed during to support us daily. Then we had regular cleaners during the Games. And we had QR codes to track everyone who moved in and out of the space. If there was a case of COVID, we had our own tools to be able to do contact tracing. Normally we’d have a bunch of indoor lounges for people to relax and have a coffee. But in Tokyo, we had an outdoor patio – a big lounge area with umbrellas, coolers and misters. And TVs so they could watch the other competitions.
PT: In your experience as Executive Director of Sport for the CPC since 2013, what's been the most unusual experience at a Games?
CD: COVID really presented so many challenges. We went out strong on COVID management and safety measures. We were regularly assessing “Do we feel safe as a team?” If we do, how can we keep moving forward and give ourselves some flexibility? Every day we were tested which gave the whole team a bigger sense of safety and we also got used to all of the measures fairly well. So proud of everyone for this since we had no COVID Cases and no Close Contact from COVID.
I was hired for my sport expertise, not for my medical or epidemiology experience, so we were all on a real fast learning curve. I worked with our chief medical officer, Dr. Andy Marshall and we had to hire infectious disease control nurses to help support from behind. We regularly asked them for advice and sometimes what seemed like the simplest thing would take 10 extra steps. It really challenged us all to think creatively.
Catherine, thank you so much for taking the time and sharing your stories and experiences about supporting Team Canada’s Paralympic athletes! I’m so excited for the Beijing Games and definitely have a new appreciation for everything that goes on behind the scenes.