Thousands of kilometers away from the Olympics in Rio de Janerio, youngsters aged from 13 to 22 come together and compete for the prestigious Microsoft Office Specialist World Championship held in Florida every year. The compete for gold, silver and bronze medals and cash prize up to $7,500 in three categories of Microsoft Office: Word, PowerPoint and Excel.
This week, as 17-year-old Ryan Catalfu received his gold medal amid thunderous applause, and smiled at the cameras after he was the Microsoft PowerPoint World Champion. He trained for this moment all year, spending two hours a day every day, practicing for the competition. He completed 300+ trail runs before the championships working to beat the fastest time in North Carolina, his home state.
The participants came from about 50 countries around the globe.
“Some call it the nerd Olympics,” said Craig Bushman, event organizer for last six years and a marketing VP at Certiport. “I’d venture to say a lot of people who feel like they are experts would not pass this test.”
This is not some athletic competition like sprinting or gymnastics where an audience watches as you cross each hurdle. The tests are taken in silence with participants sitting in front of PCs.
In the final stage, everyone is given 50 minutes to recreate a sample document in their native language using Office 2013 or 2010. The judge is the computer that generates final result based on accuracy and speed of submission.
“I was definitely not sure I was winning. I really really hoped I would win, but I was extremely nervous at the awards ceremony,” said Catalfu, whose task was a PowerPoint Presentation about some winery. After encouragement from his teachers, he decided to participate in the Office Championships. “Once I started, I got hooked on them,” he said. “I found it fun.”
Many participants take this competition quite seriously as it can later help with job offers and university applications. They undergo extensive training and hire coaches for guidance. Amidst 800,000 applicants, only 122 made it through regional finals.
The atmosphere is quite friendly with many participants getting happy at meeting people across the world who share the same niche passion. The teams from different countries mingled in common room over snacks and games.
“They’re trading pins and shirts, take selfies together and connect on Facebook and LinkedIn,” Bushman said.
Last year, Catalfu won the silver medal at Microsoft Word and is planning to compete again in 2017. A participant can only enter in each of the three programs once, so Catalfu will be competing in the Excel category. But before training for that, he will enjoy his winning prize money:
“I might get a Surface or an iPad, and I’ll probably donate a little of it to World Wildlife Fund.”