There’s a hive of activity leading up to the Special Olympics World Games, when Los Angeles will welcome more than 7000 athletes from over a 170 countries. ABILITY’s Chet Cooper challenged his vertigo and visited California’s tallest building to sit down with Patrick McClenahan, president and CEO of the Games. He later had a chat with Jeff Hansen, general manager of Microsoft’s Brand Studio; the software giant will provide tech support for the Games.
Chet Cooper: Give us some background on the Special Olympics.
Patrick McClenahan: As you may know, Special Olympics International (SOI) is in Washington, DC, and oversees all 250 Special Olympics (SO) programs around the world. There are 52 in the United States alone, including one for Southern California, and a second for Northern California. The World Games are patterned after the Olympics, and also alternate between Summer and Winter Games. But SO is held every two years during odd years, while the Olympics are every four years and during even years.
The first Summer Games were in Chicago in 1968, but the last time they were held in the States was in 1999 in Raleigh, NC. Four years later, the Summer Games were in Dublin, Ireland, where the late South African president Nelson Mandela delivered the opening ceremony keynote address. Bono and U2 were the entertainment, and Muhammad Ali and Bill Clinton came out in support. After that, the Summer Games were in Shanghai, China, and President Hu Jintao went from host town to host town talking about the importance of people with intellectual disabilities. China and India are the two fastest-growing programs in the world for SOI, and the Games continue to grow exponentially around the world.
Cooper: Did you attend the Games in Greece?
McClenahan: I did. That’s when we were bidding to bring them back to the US, and to Los Angeles. We set up a separate bid committee. Of course, I used my background in sports and broadcast TV here in Los Angeles, and together we put in a winning bid. After that, they asked if I would serve as CEO for the Games. At this point, we were three years into organizing it. We’re responsible for funding, organizing, and implementing the event. Previous World Games were significantly government funded, including the ones in Shanghai, which were about 85 percent financed by the government.
Cooper: That’s a big investment.
McClenahan: Yeah. Our model’s different—much like the 1984 Olympics that was also based here in Los Angeles—the 2015 Games will be privately funded by corporate sponsors. We have our big official partners, who are category-exclusive: Coca-Cola, Mattel, Deloitte, Bank of America, and Toyota. We saw Toyota’s new mobility lift chair at their show. My daughter Kelly has cerebral palsy; she’s 27 and in a wheelchair. At the show, she felt bashful to try out the chair in the Toyota Sienna in front of all the people. But because of our relationship with the company, they said: “You can come to Torrance (CA) and have a private showing.” So we went down expecting just to try out the lift, but they handed us the keys and said, “We don’t need it for a while. Why don’t you keep it for four or five days and see what you think?”
Cooper: Oh, that’s good.
McClenahan: It was great when Kelly made her way into that chair, which looks like all the other chairs in the car. We ended up buying a Sienna exactly like the one we borrowed.
Cooper: Clever guys.
McClenahan: Yes. Our other game sponsors include Davis Elen Advertising and Kaiser Permanente. We were also able to accomplish a deal with ESPN that’s unprecedented. They’ll be the official broadcaster of the World Games and show the opening ceremony live, virtually around the world.
Cooper: On the main ESPN channels?
McClenahan: The main ones. They have several different channels, but the main two are ESPN and ESPN 2. In the US they’re both in about 98 million homes. So we’ll either be on one or the other, but both of them have the same coverage, and then it’ll be distributed to outlets around the world. In addition, they’ll do eight hours of programming during the Games, as well as a couple of specials. They’ve assigned Bill Bonnell, one of their top producers, who has identified 25 athletes from countries around the world to cover. He’ll travel the world to do features. Those will air on Sports Center and E:60 starting in February. It’ll be kind of a Road to the World Games, which will build awareness leading up to the events.
Cooper: Nice. The Paralympics haven’t had that level of coverage.
McClenahan: The Paralympics weren’t aired at all in London, and there wasn’t a lot of coverage until NBC stepped up and did a deal for the 2014 Winter Olympics (and Paralympics) in Sochi. That’s what we want to build with ESPN. They’ve been remarkable and have embraced this as a mission. They’ve gone above and beyond what we agreed to in the contract. We were looking for a broadcast partner that was willing to tell as many possible stories, and get them in front of as many eyeballs as possible. That’s the awareness piece—and part of the way we’ll measure our success. What ESPN is doing goes a long way to help us with that.
Cooper: Hopefully they’ll have a good experience and become a long-term partner. Who else is onboard for the games?
McClenahan: Our Founding Champions are leaders in Los Angeles who stepped forward with a $1 million commitment to help fund this from the beginning. People like Stephen Spielberg, David Geffen, Walt Disney Company and AEG, which owns the Staples Center in LA; we have about 11 Founding Champions.
Cooper: How was your experience at the 2011 Summer Games?
McClenahan: It was remarkable. In the opening ceremony, we watched teams from the Middle East marching in with teams from Europe and North America; it cut through all the politics going on in the world. In LA, our opening ceremony will be at the Coliseum, the same venue where the ‘32 and the ‘84 Olympics were held, so it’ll be quite a celebration.
Cooper: The original concept of the Olympics was to bring the world together, even though there’s a competitive aspect to it. That’s also there with the Special Olympics, except there’s an intrinsic love among the athletes.
McClenahan: Yes. Our mission is two-fold. One is: Change the lives of people with intellectual disabilities. This started with seeking better health outcomes, which athletes achieve by competing and practicing year round. Some of our athletes never, ever would imagine getting in front of someone, to compete or to speak in a public setting. But they develop the courage and confidence during their training. So that’s the first part of our mission, and we want to get as many people as possible to witness their accomplishments.
The other part is the awareness that leads to acceptance and inclusion. More and more I’m realizing that the greatest thing that we can do to help people with intellectual disabilities is to change the hearts and minds of people without intellectual disabilities. To show that those with disabilities are valuable members of our community, so that there are no barriers to employment, friendship, and acceptance or inclusion. That’s why the services we provide our athletes and families, as well as the volunteer piece, are so important to us.
Cooper: Tell me about the “fans in the stands”?
McClenahan: SOI has been around for 50 years; it’s a well-recognized brand around the world. And now we’re creating an environment where our sponsors can bring their employees as a team and be “fans in the stands.” We don’t charge tickets to the events, just to the opening and closing ceremonies. But the 25 sports are free and open to the public. “Fans in the stands” gets organizations, associations and corporations to put together teams of people who will come out and adopt a stadium for a day and cheer our athletes on. It’s a great team-building opportunity for the employees; they’re doing something important in the community; and it’s great for team retention. Everybody who’s there is a part of something special.
Cooper: What about costs for the athletes’ travel and participation?
McClenahan: Every country is responsible for their SOI programming, and each one of the countries brings the athletes to Los Angeles and takes them home. They’re here for 12 days. We’re responsible for the 7,000 athletes and 3,000 coaches for the 12 days that they’re here. If you do the math, that’s 360,000 meals. We’re responsible for all the medical, all the transportation, all the housing… during that time.
The participants arrive at LAX, go to Loyola Marymount where they’re welcomed and registered, and then get on a bus and go to their host towns: cities from San Diego to San Luis Obispo, where they’ll be for three days. We already have about 70 host cities that have committed to house and feed the athletes for those days. That time is spent getting acclimated to the time zone, because many will have traveled from a great distance. It’s a ramp up to the Games. They’ll attend pep rallies, and get an opportunity to participate in cultural events. For many, it’ll be their first experience in the US, so there’s a grassroots opportunity to share the mission of SO and the programs that are available.
Cooper: What happens after these first three days?
McClenahan: Then they all go to USC and UCLA—depending on which is closest to their competition venue—where there’ll be athlete villages centered around the schools’ dormitories. There are 6,500 beds at USC and 3,500 at UCLA. After the opening ceremonies at the Coliseum, as I mentioned, they’ll compete for nine days. There’ll be three big events on USC’s campus and seven or eight on UCLA’s, and also we’re transforming the Convention Center downtown into an events center. There’ll be five sports in the mammoth South Hall of the events center. Golf is at Griffith Park, and equestrian. And then we’ve got a bunch of events down in Long Beach: sailing and kayaking, beach volleyball and open-water swim, the half-marathon, cycling.
Cooper: I didn’t know you had golf.
McClenahan: We do, and three divisions of soccer. We have everything: gymnastics, basketball, track and field, swimming, volleyball, beach volleyball, badminton, and judo. The closing ceremony is back at the Coliseum on August 2nd.
Cooper: You used the word “mammoth.” It is a mammoth project.
McClenahan: It’s a remarkable undertaking; we still have a lot of work to do.
Cooper: What happens after the event?
McClenahan: We dissolve after the Games are over
McClenahan: (laughs) That’s what’s so remarkable: All these great people come on board, and most of them don’t know what they’ll be doing after the Games are over. But they’re committed to the mission.
Cooper: How did Microsoft get involved with the
Jeff Hansen: They contacted our CEO’s office, and the proposal made its way to me. I took a meeting with them at their offices in DC, and from there, we mutually agreed: “Boy, there’s a great match here, and we could do a lot together.” Things moved pretty quickly from there.
Cooper: How long ago was that?
Hansen: Around spring. Since then, we’ve had different representatives from SO come visit us here and meet with our different teams, because there are various things we’re doing to help them reinvent their productivity. They’ve met with various technology teams; they’ve met with me; and they’ve met with other marketing teams. On their most recent trip, we officially signed the partnership, and held a celebration on campus here.
Cooper: Can you speak more about the different technologies you’re putting into place to help SO.
Hansen: There’s a big technology component. Most of it is made up of in-kind donations, including software, service, hardware, and consulting services that will modernize the SO organization, including their games-management system. We’ll be moving the latter to Microsoft Azure, which will make the system that much more robust, nimble, and cost-effective, for managing the 80,000-plus events that they do every year.
A second category is working with them to make the world aware of the partnership. So we’ll work with them on their Unified partner program; we’ll work with them on their torch run that leads into next summer’s World Games; and we’ll work with them to make our technology and programs engaging for attendees and athletes. We have rights to the SO Winter Games two years later in Austria, as well, which offers a lot of marketing and brand-building opportunities for both our organizations.
And finally, a third component of the partnership is our commitment to help with fundraising over the next three years. We’ll activate our giving campaign and other resources to help raise additional funds, particularly given that SOI is a nonprofit. If you want to dive deeper into any of these categories, I’ll do my best.
Cooper: I’m not wearing a bathing suit, but let’s both jump in.
I know it’s a huge organization, and Microsoft has different partnerships with different non-governmental organizations. Did you come out to LA and meet with SO for the World Games 2015? How did it work?
Hansen: We started the conversations with SOI, but given that the World Games are coming quickly, we’ve engaged with the SO in LA, as well. So actually a team member and I were at their World Games headquarters recently to meet with a number of their corporate sponsors at a kickoff event.
Cooper: At their new offices?
Hansen: We did visit their new downtown LA offices, which were donated. SO has the second to the top floor of the US Bank Tower, and an amazing view of the city. Meeting the partners you could feel their commitment to the project, and their energy... You can read
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