Less than a decade ago, the Youth Olympic Games did not even exist, but some 1,100 sporting youngsters will descend on the Norwegian town of Lillehammer for the second edition of the Winter event, due to take place from February 12 to 21.
The Flame will be lit 22 years to the day since the Norwegians last welcomed the world for the 17th Olympic Winter Games. 67 countries attended those Games in 1994, while 70 nations are expected to be represented at Lillehammer 2016.
Whenever the President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) closes the Games, he uses the traditional words “I call upon the Youth of the World “ to summon competitors to the next gathering, yet it took almost a century for an event which specifically targeted the youngest generation to be established.
Organisations such as the Scout Movement have a long tradition of service to the Games, as Flagbearers, messengers and in other volunteer roles.
At the 1924 Olympics in Paris there had even been “Jeux D’Enfance”. These were staged at the Stade de Colombes on rest days in the Olympic programme. The sports were tailored to young people and included basketball and volleyball, not then a part of the Olympics, and cageball. Other events included zig-zag relays. The event was masterminded by Louis Schroeder, a key official in the YMCA and participants included youth sections from that organisation, cub scouts and school groups.
In sports education, the IOC backed the setting up of an International Olympic Academy in Greece, close to the ancient site of the Games. From modest beginnings under canvas in 1961, this institution grew and annually welcomes young people from all over the world to study the Olympic Movement.
But the genesis of what they now call YOG did not come until the mid 1980s. The Olympic Movement had been blighted by a political boycott and Jacques Rogge, then the leader of the European Olympic Committees, had become increasingly concerned at the lack of contact between young people in the East and West. With his support, a regional sporting event was arranged.
The European Youth Olympic Days had just been introduced when the Berlin Wall came crashing down but the idea was a sound one and flourished, albeit with a later name change to European Youth Olympic Festival (EYOF).
Though many had mooted the idea, it took another decade-and-a-half for the idea of a similar event on a global scale to take shape. It came as no surprise that the impetus came from Rogge himself. By now he was IOC President and enthusiastically championed the idea at the 2007 IOC Session in Guatemala.
Rogge insisted it was necessary “to address a change in society illustrated by an increase in obesity, a decline in sports participation, especially among young people, a drop in school sport and the disappearance of playing fields in the world’s cities.”
He outlined plans for a sporting competition with an age range of 14 to 18. “Athletes from all National Olympic Committees would be invited to ensure universality,” he said. In fact, the size of each team was limited and strict quotas were enforced to make sure participants from each region were well represented. The programme was to feature Olympic sports but many had variations designed to appeal to young people. 3×3 basketball has been particularly popular and has echoes of the schoolyard in its format, for example.
The host city took on the cost of running the Games but the IOC were to pay for the teams to get there.
From an initial list which featured 11 cities, Singapore beat Moscow in a postal vote to secure the rights to stage the inaugural event.
The Organising Committee, led by IOC member Ng Ser Miang, set to work with little more than two years to prepare. Facilities around the city were given a facelift and a huge university campus pressed into service as the Village for the young athletes.
As teams began to arrive in late July 2010, Rogge, a former surgeon, had confessed to feeling ‘’like a expectant father in the delivery room”.
The inaugural Youth Olympic Flame visited all five continents before it arrived in Singapore in the week before the Games. A 12-year-old, Low Wie Jie, was so excited to see it, he ran for two hours to follow its progress, braving tropical storms to do so. When organisers heard about his exploits, he was officially invited to carry the Flame.
It came across the water to the Opening Ceremony, held on a huge floating stage in Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands. Lit by star Singaporean sailor Darren Choy, it burned in an innovative cauldron designed as a lighthouse.
The Games themselves were heavily promoted through social media. The young participants were encouraged to share their experiences in preparing for the Games. The IOC sponsored a young reporters programme to encourage journalists starting out and some of those accredited to cover the Games were even younger, writing for their own school websites and magazines. During the Games, Twitter was used to allow stadium announcers to keep the crowd informed, especially at wider-ranging events such as sailing.
Social media went into overdrive when diver Pauline Ducruet of Monaco competed in front of her mother Princess Stephanie and her uncle Prince Albert of Monaco, IOC member in the Principality.
On the athletics track, Alexia Sedykh, representing France, won the hammer throw event watched by her father Yuri, who had claimed Olympic gold medals for the Soviet Union in the same event at Montreal 1976 and Moscow 1980.
Rogge had been a sailor at three Olympic Games and took delight in meeting the new generation.
“I am coming to the roots of the sport I loved,” he said at the time.
“If I could have had something like this I would have been very happy. I was raised in the very traditional model, youth classes and then to the Olympic classes.”
South African swimmer Chad Le Clos won a gold medal in the 200 metres medley – one of five medals in Singapore – before he went on to Commonwealth and world titles. Even greater glory awaited at London 2012, where a fantastic finish to the 200m took him past his hero Michael Phelps to touch for gold.
“If it wasn’t for competing in the Singapore 2010 YOG, I would not have achieved my success. No doubt about it,” he said. Le Clos became a Games ambassador in Nanjing four years later and tried roller sport, sport climbing and skateboarding at the Sports Lab.
The experience of YOG competition certainly helped Jade Jones of Britain, a winner of a taekwondo gold medal in Singapore. Less than two years later, still aged only 19, she followed this with victory over China’s Yuzhuo Hou to claim Olympic gold on home soil. She was her country’s youngest Olympic champion at London 2012.
Russian gymnast Viktoria Komova was the outstanding performer in Singapore as she won the gold medal in the all around, on the vault and in the parallel bars and seemed destined for great things at senior level, and so it proved. World Championship gold followed on the bars and at the London Olympics, she was a key member of the silver medal-winning Russian team and led the individual standings after the qualification round. She was pipped to the title by Gabby Douglas of the United States.
At 13, Lithuanian swimmer, Rūta Meilutytė had been too young to take part in the Singapore Games. She soon showed that she was a prodigy with gold at the EYOF and then in London 2012 where she produced a stunning swim to take the 100m breaststroke title. She did not miss out on the YOG experience. Still eligible in 2014, and by now a world champion and record holder, she travelled to Nanjing and added a gold in her signature event.
The Nanjing Summer Youth Olympic Games were staged on a grandiose scale in superb facilities originally built for the Chinese National Games. They had beaten off the challenge of the Polish city of Poznan to stage the Games. Some felt an opportunity had been missed.
“I am a little concerned. It is not cheap,” said the late Finnish IOC member Peter Tallberg. “The IOC was told that these Youth Olympic Games would be at a cheap cost so hopefully that nations that cannot organise the normal Games will have a possibility to step in.
“When you have China, they can easily organise something like this, whereas I feel it should be nations who do not have the same possibilities as China.”
Four cities had originally bid for the first Winter YOuth Olympic Games before Innsbruck beat the Finnish city of Kuopio. Innsbruck had hosted the Winter Olympics twice before and their only major construction project was the Athletes Village. Even the Flame was lit in Athens rather than Olympia to keep costs down. After the Opening Ceremony at the Bergisel Stadium, it was moved to a smaller cauldron in the town centre.
The sports were staged in many of the venues which were used for the 1964 and 1976 Winter Olympics. This offered a pleasing echo at the Olympia Eisstadion where the Soviet Union had won ice hockey gold thanks in no small part to goal minder Vladislav Tretyak. In 2012, he watched proudly as grandson Maxim took his place in the Russian team, also in goal.
Adam Lamhamedi wrote his own chapter of Olympic history with gold in the super-G. Although born in Quebec, his father was Moroccan so he skied under their colours in Innsbruck. It was the first medal for an African nation at any Olympic Winter event. When Morocco sent two competitors to Sochi for the 2014 Winter Olympics, he carried the flag.
Marco Schwarz won three gold medals for Switzerland in Innsbruck and may well make his mark at the Olympics in Pyeongchang two years from now.
There will be 70 medal events in 15 sports at Lillehammer and just as in previous Games, there will be events making their debuts. Up on the bobsleigh run pilots can reach 130 kilometres an hour, while the monobob is contested on identical sleds. The biathlon will include a single mixed relay and the cross-country cross features jumps and turns to test the skiers ability.
The team ski mixed snowboard cross will feature snowboarders and skiers who alternate on the run. Separate cross events have been spectacular additions to the Olympic programme in recent years so combining the two should be an explosive mix.
Although many of these new formats feature in the X Games, the IOC have always insisted that they have been ahead of the curve.
“We did not wait for the X Games but I am not ashamed to say we did learn a lot from the organisation of the event,” said Rogge in 2012.
From the outset, the YOG have set great store by education. Schools in the host country make contact with their counterparts across the world and take great pride in exhibiting the fruits of their work during the Games. The athletes themselves can take advantage of sessions in a programme called “Learn and Share”, which is billed as a “once in a lifetime experience to acquire new sports and life skills”. These sessions include practical tips on nutrition, preparation for competition, even talking to the media. They will also feature a seminar with Crown Prince Haakon of Norway on dignity in sport.
The International Olympic Academy and International Olympic Truce Centre will run activities during the Games and a new Olympic Museum will open close by the Youth Olympic Village.
Fifteen Olympic stars have been recruited as Athlete Role Models. For Lillehammer, these will include Switzerland’s 2014 downhill champion Dominique Gisin, freestyle champion Hannah Kearney of the United States and snowboarder Ross Powers, who led an American clean sweep in the 2002 halfpipe. Double Olympic luge gold medallist Wolfgang Linger from Austria and women’s ski jump pioneer Anette Sagen, a huge favourite in Norway, will also take on the role for the Games.
“They give back to the sport by supporting the next generation,” said Angela Ruggiero, an American ice hockey gold medallist, who has led the IOC Coordination Commission for Lillehammer 2016. “They will be a huge support and comfort to the young athletes,”
To help promote the event, the IOC have also appointed YOG Ambassadors, including formidable skier Lindsey Vonn of the United States, Norwegian slopestyle snowboarder Silje Norendal and figure skater Yuna Kim of South Korea, who has already held a skating workshop in Lillehammer.
“I think the athletes will fall in love with the place,’’ she said.
Among those also learning in Lillehammer will be observers from Lausanne, the host city of the next Winter Youth Olympics in 2022. The Olympic Capital has a century of experience hosting the Olympic Movement but staging a competition of this magnitude will be another challenge altogether.
Before that, Buenos Aires will stage the next summer Games in 2018. They beat Glasgow and Medellín for the right to do so and will complete a golden hat-trick for South America after Rio 2016 and an IOC Session in Peru.
After that, the Youth Olympics will be held in a new cycle beginning in 2023.
Away from the marketing hype and buzzwords, Innsbruck struck just the right note of informality four years ago. IOC members travelled alongside athletes on the buses, the sport was watched by thousands of enthusiastic youngsters and the antics of the Games mascot even surprised IOC President Rogge. His successor Thomas Bach has already become the first to use the word “selfie” in an official Olympic speech and in Lillehammer, Youth Olympians are being encouraged to contribute to a giant mosaic, which will be digital, of course.
- By Philip Barker
- Republished with permission insidethegames.biz