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IOC President Thomas Bach, four-time Olympic ice hockey medallist and IOC Athletes’ Commission and 2016 YOG Coordination Commission member Angela Ruggiero, Felix Gottwald, a triple Olympic champion in the Nordic combined, Claudia Nystad, a double-gold-medal winner in cross-country skiing and ski jumping legend Anette Sagen made up a formidable panel for the third session in the “Chat with Champions” series, for which the topic was the athlete’s brand.
The first question put to the panel concerned how athletes should manage their image in the internet era. Leading the responses was IOC President Thomas Bach, who won Olympic gold in the team foil event at the 1976 Games. “I don’t like to speak about the Olympic brand and branding,” he explained. “It’s about more than that. Branding is a very business-like expression. In the Olympic Movement and at the Games, we should speak more about the Olympic values and not about the Olympic brand. The aim is to promote the values. The aim is not to build a brand and to be popular or profitable as you would seek to in a business.”
“We should think about how to promote the Olympic values. How to transfer the inspiration we all are getting here from these Youth Olympic Games. And if you speak about branding an athlete or how an athlete should brand himself, the answer is very easy. An athlete needs to show their personality. Be yourself. Be authentic. Don’t try to make something up. Your personality will only come across if you are yourself. This is the only advice I can give.”
Angela Ruggiero followed up by underlining that athletes can become role models, inspiring young people to take up a sport and using social media to support causes that matter to them and to promote the Olympic values.
Felix Gottwald then went on to explain how he realised he had become a brand and that with this came its own responsibilities? “I realised I had a name, it was quite a few years before I started with the sport, when my parents called me Felix. The name itself is programmed because Felix is the lucky one.” The German Nordic ski champion reiterated the fact that the most important thing is to stay true to yourself, because if you don’t “it will cost a lot of energy playing a role.” He added that “In this hall, it is not necessary to talk about the values because you come in and you can feel the values! Find a way to live these values! In the real Olympic Games, it’s “Higher, Faster, Stronger”. But sport as we can see here is much more. We need to find a way to inspire the older generation as well. Because they need it too!”
What can the Youth Olympic Games bring to the Olympic Games? Thomas Bach began by noting that the athletes competing at Lillehammer are the athletes of the future, remarking that he hoped many of them would compete at Olympic Games in the future. “The Olympic Games are always about the future. I heard a good sentence, ‘the Olympic Movement and the Olympic Games are not about memories, they are about dreams.’ These athletes are dreaming these dreams. And when we have to take decisions in the IOC, we have always to be aware we are taking decisions which take effect in seven, nine and 10 years time. The election of a host city starts nine years before.”
“You have always to have the vision of how society and sport will look in nine years from now. What may the future athletes think? Now when we speak about 2024, this is not going to be like London. London was a huge success but it’s history. The decision we have to take exactly in this sense is: how will the athletes think in 2024? These are these athletes here or in Buenos Aires. What will be their environment in society? Will top-level sport even be more appreciated? Will it be less appreciated? Will they have the same support as they enjoy now? What does it mean for their professional careers? And so on. And in this way, yes, this Youth Olympic Games here in 2016 will inspire in part the Winter Games in 2018 and even more the Winter Olympic Games in 2022.”
“Don’t become a brand!” This was President Bach’s main advice when asked about how athletes should manage their relationship with sponsors. “Be a personality, be an athlete. You are human beings! All the athletes have a great personality, they all have a story to tell. They have done so much to get there! They should not de-value themselves in trying to become a brand. Be yourself, be a personality and then all the rest is coming. Have this confidence in yourself that you do not have to take certain habits, you do not have to behave in a certain manner to please some people for one week and then they forget again. Don’t be a brand!”
Anette Sagen echoed President Bach’s comments. She explained that it was important to be oneself in front of the media, adding that she could have made a fortune as a public speaker, but “that’s never been an option for me. I never wanted to sell my name.” She went on to say that, “for certain events like the Youth Olympic Games, I’m totally fine with stepping up and telling my story and share my experience and trying to inspire but I have a private life, and I’m a student currently and someday I will have a normal everyday job.”
The panel members were then asked how experiencing the Youth Olympic Games could impact on the lives of the young athletes taking part. “The guys are in school, most of them, and they don’t have to think about money now,” explained Claudia Nystad. “The Learn and Share activities here, I never saw this before. They don’t have this in the real Olympics. And what I saw the last week, it was so great to see how the IOC works and what you can do with your sport. The small nations in winter sport are so interested in it. And I know that they get a lot out of it. I know that they are going home and they know how it works, the structure of the Olympic Games. They have fun when they meet. You can see it. I know they go home much more richer than when they come here!”
Thomas Bach came back to the creation of the IOC Athletes Commission, of which he was the first president. During the founding congress, he gave a speech about abandoning the word “amateur” in the Olympic charter because “we said everybody is making money with the sport and the athletes are not allowed to.” But, “they should.” Today, “in order to be successful in sport, but also commercially, don’t change your personality. You have different approaches. You take your approach and this is your personality. Another one can go and give his speeches but he will not be invited if he is looking for it and if he’s behaving in a way only to be invited or if he’s behaving in a very artificial way only to get sponsors. This is a mistake. If you want to commercialize your success, yes, welcome, in compliance with the rules, but please do not change your personality for this. This was my plea!”
Angela Ruggiero added that at Lillehammer the young Olympians’ experience there had enabled them to understand the Olympic values of excellence, friendship and success. She pointed out that they now have all the tools necessary for spreading their message, particularly via social media. “Think about the position you’re in as role models, the number of young children you can reach and the effect that you can have. You have the platform now to talk about the Olympic values, to talk about what you care about and why your life has changed and how the world is different because of sport.”
She also spoke of the importance of the YOG Learn and Share programme. “It’s unique! In the Olympic Games, I was fortunate to compete in four in ice hockey and you’re very focused. You might have exposure to WADA, for example, or the athlete career programme, or other programmes that the IOC puts on for the athletes but you don’t have the diversity of programmes. You don’t have the time. You don’t have all these wonderful volunteers that are coming to speak and teach and listen. It’s a unique aspect of the Youth Olympic Games that our commission will talk about. Maybe there’s a way to incorporate it at the Games, because I think it is such a valuable moment for people to experience.”
Emphasising the success of the Lillehammer YOG, Thomas Bach spoke of how happy he was to learn that the young athletes had approached all of the champions present at the discussion to ask for advice. He highlighted the importance of the cyclical relationship between “inspiring and getting inspired. With regard to the Olympic Games, we have to look for the format. These are more mature athletes so they’re more focused on the competition, so we have to find different means. We could do a little better in information and do more in the digital world. I hope that with the Olympic channel we can address them all. And not only them but also a broader public, again by using these athletes’ experience to get our message across to a broader public.”
The IOC President had three key pieces of advice for young athletes: “Keep this Olympic spirit alive after the Youth Olympic Games. Share this Olympic experience with others. And keep working hard so that one day you can make it to the Olympic Games!”
When asked about her favourite moment at Lillehammer, Angela Ruggiero replied, “I was part of the Coordination Commission planning this event. One of my favourite events actually happened today: the ice hockey skills challenge. All of the athletes that participated in that event decided to spontaneously organise a hockey match between one another. So there were 27 countries on the same ice. They just literally split up the middle, boys and girls on the ice at the same time. And they were just cheering one another. They were high-fiving one another. Respecting one another. I remember just thinking, this is what the Youth Olympics are all about. They were previously competing but they decided that they love sport, they love hockey, so they’re going to just play this match together. To have that many countries playing on the same ice sheet. It was probably my favourite moment.”