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Members of the American team at the 2017 Special Olympics World Winter Games held in March in Austria. (Special Olympics International Photo)

Each year, Special Olympics International and its 220 chapters worldwide organize some 108,000 events. The games give athletes with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to compete in everything from basketball to bocce, gymnastics to judo. The group’s lofty goal is to “transform lives through the joy of sport,” which has the added benefit of helping erode misconceptions about its athletes.

But until recently, one of the heaviest lifts for the nonprofit came from the basic mechanics of running their signature sporting events.

There was the job of registering athletes, setting up the matches and competitions and scrambling to tally scores. People would be waiting late into the night to find out where they were supposed to compete the next day. Athletes, spectators and media covering the events often had a difficult time figuring out when and where the action was taking place. It was hard to find peoples’ phone numbers. There was little automation, and lots of paperwork.

“What we were doing before was very labor intensive,” said Mary Davis, CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Special Olympics International.

So in 2014, the organization teamed up with Microsoft to modernize and automate key pieces of its operations. The Redmond-based company used Azure, its cloud computing platform, to overhaul the IT infrastructure that Special Olympics uses to manage its games. Microsoft provided copies of Office 365 to improve productivity and communications.

Athletes competing in the ladies 100 meter finals in the 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games held in Los Angeles. Microsoft donated 1,200 phones to use at the event. (Special Olympics International Photo)

The changes mark a dramatic improvement in how Special Olympics runs its games, Davis said, including the World Winter Games that recently took place in Austria.

And in July 2018, Special Olympics will hold its USA Games in Seattle. The event, which is held every four years, will bring 3,500 athletes to the city to compete in 16 different sports. The opening ceremonies will be held at Husky Stadium at the University of Washington. Events will take place at venues around the city.

Microsoft is a top sponsor of next year’s games, giving $2.5 million to support the event.

“It’s an opportunity for us to present Seattle as a city of inclusion. We will have athletes and families coming to Seattle from every state in the country,” said Brad Smith, president and chief legal officer of Microsoft, as well as the honorary chair of the games.

Smith said that Microsoft has increased its attention to helping disabled people through a range of initiatives since Satya Nadella became CEO in February 2014.

“Accessibility is one area he encouraged us to focus on more,” Smith said. “He had a deep appreciation for the role technology can play in improving the lives of people with disabilities.”

Over the past three years, the company has helped Special Olympics through donations of software, technical assistance and even cell phones for use at events. It launched a program to employ disabled workers. And Microsoft has engineered software updates that make its products more user-friendly to people with reduced vision and children with dyslexia, among other improvements.

Members of the American team at the opening ceremonies of the 2017 World Winter Games. (Special Olympics International Photo)

The partnership with Special Olympics has benefited both parties, Smith said.

“First, this is an opportunity for Microsoft to help the Special Olympics International be more effective in what it does, and second, it’s an opportunity for employees at Microsoft to learn more about the needs of the people who participate in the Special Olympics,” he said.

One of the upgrades most exciting to the Special Olympics organizers has been the ability to post results, photos and footage of events in real time on the internet and mobile devices.

It allows friends and families to track their loved one’s performance. And it makes it easier for the organization to expand its reach, sharing stories of the competitors and educating the public about their accomplishments.

With this access, “people understand the abilities and capabilities of our athletes,” Davis said. “They can see the inspiring stories.”

Neither Microsoft nor Special Olympics would say how much the company has donated in products and services to the organization. Both were pleased with the impact.

“The change and transformation has been enormous,” Davis said.

Smith hopes the upcoming USA Games will have a positive effect on the city and beyond.

After the Seattle event, he said, “we will all come away with, I believe, a deeper understanding of what this population needs, and a broader appreciation of what wonderfully talented people these folks are.”

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