The Youth Olympic Games (YOG) held in Buenos Aires this summer were a ground-breaking event for a number of reasons, not least the success of the pioneering mixed competitions, featuring teams of both men and women from different National Olympic Committees. Paniz Yousefi, a Young Change-Maker from Sweden helped out with the coaching and mentoring for ‘Team Alpha’, who won a gold medal in the new badminton mixed relay event in the Argentinian capital. Here, she describes how she saw first hand the ways in which these innovative events are helping to bring athletes and entourages from different countries together to break down barriers, share ideas and foster a sense of camaraderie and community.

When I saw the mixed relay event in action, I immediately understood that this was a really good event for the YOG. It allowed the athletes to connect, and it was a way to make the players understand each other, help each other and make friends outside their comfort zone. It’s a fun, peaceful and beneficial way to develop as a future Olympic athlete. It was amazing to see the team spirit and joy.

Playing the game a different way
Badminton is an individual sport where you rarely take the opportunity to become friends with players from other countries. It’s always about winning. The team events opened up the players to new experiences, and suddenly they had to collaborate and choose who was going to play which game and with whom, working to ensure that everyone was happy. And they did that so well. Every player was involved; even the less outspoken ones had a huge role in the group.

The whole team was cheering on the players on court, and if someone lost their match it was okay and we comforted each other. As a coach, I have never seen anything like it: a team in the Olympics that wanted to win, but for which the most important things were the players and how they felt.

The bonding between the coaches, too, was great to see. I think that when the players saw us coaches working together, suffering together and laughing together, they also had more fun. Besides the gold medal, I think the most memorable time for everyone was the time spent together. As a player and coach, I have never seen team spirit like that in badminton.

Team-mates for life
The teams were together for just a few days, but they bonded so well they have already planned to see each other in future competitions. The players didn’t know each other before the game, but they became best friends there. We were training together, eating lunch and dinner together, and creating WhatsApp groups together – the athletes and the coaches. My team’s group chat is still used today!

I can now understand why the IOC was so eager to include these mixed events; they are such a good way for our future athletes to see the Olympic values in action, and learn that you don’t necessarily have to be the best player to win. Teamwork and the right spirit can take you to a gold medal. 

My advice to coaches is to not be afraid of letting the players collaborate and decide. It wasn’t just about winning. Every game was also a lesson for the future. For the teams, of course, there was sadness when they lost, but they were able to reflect on all the great moments they shared and the friends that they had made.

With more of these types of mixed events I see a bright future for badminton, and more team events in individual sports would be a great addition to the Olympic programme.