By Mike Rowbottom

Mike RowbottomThe next 25 years will witness all manner of change within the Paralympic Movement, but if Professor Hans Georg Näder has his way, one element at least will remain a constant - the commitment to the Movement of the company of which he is President and chief executive, Ottobock.

Formed in 1919, the company has offered a growing range of wheelchairs, prosthetics and associated products for people with limited mobility, and after a quarter of a century's association with the Paralympics, for which it was the first partner, Näder has pledged that the relationship will be maintained for the next 25 years at least.

"Since Ottobock's first involvement in the Paralympic Games in 1988, they have grown into one of the Paralympic Movement's most loyal, trusted and reliable partners. Their support has been instrumental to the growth of the Paralympic Movement," said Sir Philip Craven, the International Paralympic Committee's (IPC) President.

Sir Philip Craven has praised Ottobock's continuing involvement with the Paralympic Movement @Getty ImagesSir Philip Craven has praised Ottobock's continuing involvement with the Paralympic Movement @Getty Images

According to Christin Gunkel, Ottobock's chief marketing officer, the original connection with the Paralympic Movement, made at the 1988 Seoul Games, was almost on a whim - and an idealistic whim at that.

"1988 was a milestone for the Paralympic Movement," she told insidethegames. "There was more technology available, and more equipment. Our technicians saw that support was needed in Seoul. So we sent a team of four technicians out there to set up a tent and offer that support to athletes. There was no commercial interest attached to it, and it wasn't about corporate social responsibility. No one really asked them to go. But they didn't want athletes to be prevented from living their dream just because their equipment had broken or was not working properly.

"I don't think anyone back then thought: 'Oh, 25 years from now the Paralympics will be a really big deal'. The idea was 'let's help these athletes, who have spent two, four, six years training for this competition. Let's help them live their dreams'. It probably wasn't until the 2004 Paralympics in Athens until the Games provided us with a platform to be able to tell people what we do.

Britain’s Andrew Hodge celebrates after winning a gold medal in the 100 metres at the 1992 Barcelona Paralympics, the second for which Ottobock provided technical support @Getty ImagesBritain’s Andrew Hodge celebrates after winning a gold medal in the 100 metres at the 1992 Barcelona Paralympics, the second for which Ottobock provided technical support
@Getty Images

"Professor Näder was there in Seoul, and it made a huge impression on him. Passion for the Paralympics is like a kind of virus - once you have got it, it stays with you. And passion for the Paralympics is what still drives us."

As you might expect, the requirements for modern-day Paralympic technical back-up involve a little more than four willing technicians, a few toolboxes and parts and a large tent.

"At the London 2012 Paralympics we had a team of 80 technicians spread over 20 centres, covering all the main competitive venues, including the Athletes' Village, the sailing and equestrian venues, and nine satellite venues," Gunkel said. "We also had a mobile unit available which was mostly of use on the marathon courses.

"We were able to deal in 23 languages and we were able to cover most of the cultural and religious spectrum. For instance, we had women technicians to offer support to female competitors from countries where that would be a particularly sensitive issue.

"The support we offered back in 1988 was at a more basic level, such as pumping up tyres or replacing broken items. Now we have got to the point where it is so individual that the only way we can help athletes is to build something completely new for them.

"For instance, let's say a socket for a prosthesis breaks. You can't just go to the store and say 'There you go'. It is an essential, connecting the athlete with their prosthesis, and if the alignment is not exactly right it will hurt them and prevent them being able to do their sport. It's the same with running plates. They come in so many different shapes and sizes - again, they are highly individual.

"As far as wheelchair racers are concerned, one of the key areas is the backrest - that is something we replace which is a highly individual part of the equipment. Or an athlete might have an arm rest in a particular position which needs replacing or repairing.

Britain's David Weir, eventual winner of the London 2012 Paralympic marathon, gets to grips with the opposition in an event for which Ottobock provided mobile repair services @Getty ImagesBritain's David Weir, eventual winner of the London 2012 Paralympic marathon, gets to grips with the opposition in an event for which Ottobock provided mobile repair services
@Getty Images

"The growth in demand has been pretty steady, although there was a big jump forward at the Atlanta Paralympics. But we have to keep adapting. At the Sochi Winter Games, for instance, there will be snowboarding for the first time, so we will need to have a new technician with specialist knowledge in that area.

"It has been quite a logistical challenge over the last 25 years. We have grown together with the Movement. When Professor Näder tried to raise media interest in the 1988 Paralympics in Germany he got eight minutes on one German television channel on the subject of healthcare. It wasn't even considered sport by most of the media. Now at the Paralympics you are talking about 80 hours of live coverage going worldwide. It's come a long, long way and we are very proud to be associated with it."

Debate over classification, as was emphasised in the most recent IPC conference, is one of the most important ongoing elements for the Paralympic Movement. But while it exercises the minds and judgements of IPC members, it is not such an issue for Ottobock.

"The IPC set the rules - we just follow them," said Gunkel. "If an athlete comes to our workshop and requests something completely out of tune our technician won't do it. We try to support the IPC at all points. For instance you can't have a motor in your knee, you can't put any external energy on it. In general, this is not something we like to do anyway because we don't want people to be moved by our equipment, we want people to move themselves with it. But we have never really had to refuse to do anything for an athlete, because they all know the rules and don't want to risk being disqualified. This does mean of course that our technicians have to be completely on top of all the IPC rulings over classification."

There was, as you might expect, of considerable interest within Ottobock over the row which broke out at the London 2012 Paralympics following the men's T44 200 metres, where silver medallist Oscar Pistorius claimed the prostheses, or blades, of gold medallist Alan Oliveira and bronze medallist Blake Leeper were too long and had given them an unfair advantage. Pistorius claimed athletes had switched to longer blades in the year leading to the Games - he himself being unable to alter his prostheses because of his additional involvement in running against Olympic athletes, for which his equipment had to conform to agreed regulations.

The closing stages of the London 2012 T44 200m, after which silver medallist Oscar Pistorius accused gold medallist Alan Oliveira of using blades unfairly lengthened @Getty ImagesThe closing stages of the London 2012 T44 200m, after which silver medallist Oscar Pistorius accused gold medallist Alan Oliveira of using blades unfairly lengthened @Getty Images

But Gunkel insists Pistorius' claims were not justified. "The rules are set by the International Paralympic Committee," she said. "The ruling on the length of prostheses for athletes is based upon a complicated formula they came up with in the 1970s. According to that, both Pistorius and Oliveira were within the acceptable range. There may be some questions remaining, but they relate to the formula. What happened was all within the rules."

When it comes to elite Paralympians, however, Gunkel believes, there is a fault in the general perception of their equipment.

"We make prostheses for elite athletes, and also for what you might call everyday people. Most people might think it was the other way round, but the prostheses we make for everyday life are far more technically advanced.

"We have a knee which can go at different speeds and which is waterproof. We work with upper limbs, and have a hand which does replicate natural movement with the help of a small motor. But in general the cutting edge of our technology is not something that applies to sport. Because of the IPC rules, athletes don't need it.

"The only purpose for the athlete is to create something which will let them run forwards as fast as possible. But everyday life is more complicated than running, say, 100m. The everyday knee has to do so much more than the sports knee. People have to turn, go backwards, sit down, get up time after time after time...

"But we also provide sports prostheses for people who are not involved at the elite level and who maybe just want to run for leisure. It's the same as buying the same shoes as Usain Bolt wears - it doesn't mean you can run as fast as he can."

Before the Pistorius-Oliveira spat, however, there was a far larger and more significant debate concerning Pistorius' ambition of running in the Olympic as well as the Paralympic Games - an ambition he realised at the London 2012 Games. Initially blocked by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), Pistorius won his case at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in 2008, effectively rebutting those who suggested his twin "blades" might actually give him a locomotive advantage over runners who had use of both their legs.

"We followed that debate, and it was quite interesting to us," Gunkel said. "I found it quite amusing that people thought a piece of equipment to replace something that wasn't there and which allowed a person to do sport was considered an unfair advantage."

The debate over whether it is right for single amputees to race against double amputees - something which numerous athletes including Pistorius raised during last year's Games - is one to which Gunkel gives more credence.

But she discounts the charge made by Pistorius and others at London 2012 that athletes had made late changes to longer blades. "No athlete would change that part of their body - because that is what it effectively is - in the middle of competition."

Following Professor Näder's commitment to another 25 years of involvement with the Paralympics, Gunkel speculated on what the Paralympic Movement look like another quarter of a century on.

"I think public interest in the Paralympics is still growing," Gunkel said. "But we still need to promote a little bit more interest in some countries. In the UK, people 'get' the Paralympics completely. Spectators understand it. London 2012 was just amazing, because it was about sport rather than disability. Other countries still have to match that.

"We need to keep the level of public interest high. All the athletes have great stories, but I would love to see the interest become more in the sport than the athlete.

Former British Paralympian Margaret Maughan looks on after lighting the London 2012 Paralympic cauldron ahead of a Games which, according to Christin Gunkel, celebrated what people can do, not what they cannot @Getty ImagesFormer British Paralympian Margaret Maughan looks on after lighting the London 2012 Paralympic cauldron ahead of a Games which, according to Christin Gunkel, celebrated what people can do, not what they cannot @Getty Images

"There will obviously be more challenges in terms of the equipment provided. But I look forward to seeing the Movement developing in areas where it is now engaging with the grassroots, such as some of the African nations. It is going to be very interesting to see this development over the next 25 years.

"People have spoken about the Olympics and the Paralympics becoming more of a single entity, and we saw the first glimpse of this in London 2012 with Oscar Pistorius. But I think that wasn't about bringing the Olympics and Paralympics closer, it was about having a challenge. If you are competing against the same people, and you win the race every time, as Pistorius found, then as an athlete you look for the next challenge. That's why he did it, I think.

"We have a number of athletes who are pretty close to Olympic levels of performance - Germany has some very strong long jumpers, for instance - although they are not quite there yet. But I don't see the two competitions being mixed in the near future. There are certain sports, for instance, that could never integrate. Most Paralympic athletes really like the idea of separate Olympics and Paralympics. In London the Paralympics were about sport, they were about the performances of athletes. It wasn't about handicaps or equipment, it was about what athletes could do and to what levels they could achieve.

"When Oscar competed in the Olympics, it put so much attention on his handicap, and on his equipment. No one paid too much attention to his time. It was all about his handicap and whether it was okay for him to be running in the Olympics."

Gunkel believes that sporting events such as the Paralympics have had a profound effect on the general public perception of those with disability. "Sport is a great way to interest and engage people," she said. "If you asked most people if they wanted to know about wheelchairs or wheelchair users, they would probably say: 'Not really'. Most people do not know anyone who is in a wheelchair, or who has a disability such as a single or double amputation. But sport is something which so many people can relate to, so it is a good hook to get people interested. When people watch, for instance, a wheelchair basketball game, they begin to see people with disability in a completely new way. And that carries over into everyday life. You begin to develop a mindset which says 'Some people sit in a wheelchair, while I have glasses'. It changes the perception.

"At the 2008 Beijing Paralympics you could see this change happening. You could see wheelchair users out and about in the city, getting greater access than ever before. Two years later, at the Shanghai 2010 Expo, there was an exhibition devoted to wheelchair users for the first time in the event's history.

"We are losing the idea that Paralympics is about what people can't do. People are now looking at what people can do. And I really like that."

Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, covered the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics as chief feature writer for insidethegames, having covered the previous five summer Games, and four winter Games, for The Independent. He has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, The Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. His latest book Foul Play – the Dark Arts of Cheating in Sport (Bloomsbury £12.99) is available at the shop. To follow him on Twitter click here.