IOC President Jacques Rogge on the Youth Olympic Games
by Jacques Rogge
President of the International Olympic Committee
When the first Olympic Games of the modern era opened in Athens in 1896 with just 241 competitors and few spectators, its future was not as assured as hindsight would now suggest. Indeed, the Athens Games attracted athletes from just 14 nations, with the largest delegations coming from Greece, Germany, France and Great Britain. The Games were a very different offering from the global phenomenon we see today, which has become a regular fixture in all our sporting and social calendars.
It took another 28 years before the Winter Games joined its older twin brother as a regular event. And now we expect to see Games alternatively every two years, but this wasn’t always the case; just as the sporting programme has continued to evolve, the Olympic Games themselves as a global spectacle were not always guaranteed.
In just a few days time, we will see the first ever edition of the Youth Olympic Games, a worthy addition to the Olympic stable. And just as the Olympic programme has never been set in stone and has continued to change and reflect changing attitudes to sport and society, so we will see some interesting innovations and events that have never appeared before on an Olympic programme. There will be new formats like street basketball, relay races in the pool and triathlon with mixed gender teams, there will be even competitions with mixed teams from different nationalities. All these are designed to appeal to a younger audience and inspire the young athletes. But whatever the changes and experiments, what is more important and what is at the centre of the Youth Olympic Games is of course the focus on young athletes. So why the very deliberate concentration on youth?
As organisers of the largest sporting event in the world, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) understands that it has a responsibility to prepare young athletes for their future. Indeed, this was one of the pillars upon which IOC founder Pierre de Coubertin built the modern Olympic Games the turn of the 20th century.
Sport itself is a great educational tool for young people. It strengthens their bodies as well as their minds, teaches them discipline, and encourages them to set goals and achieve them. But it would be irresponsible for the sports world to take a laissez-faire approach to its young athletes by simply hoping that the act of taking part in sport will give them the abilities they require to face and overcome obstacles both on and off the field of play.
The Youth Olympic Games, which will take place from 14 to 26 August in Singapore, will be about staging high-level competition in 26 sports while providing guidance and encouragement to some 3,600 of the world’s best athletes between the ages of 14 and 18.
In addition to two weeks of first-class competition, the athletes will take part in a wide range of cultural and educational activities aimed at equipping them with the skills to make reasoned, intelligent decisions in life. The programme will last the duration of the Games and cover a host of topics, including the benefits of leading healthy lifestyles, the dangers of doping, and the value of friendship, solidarity and fair play.
We want to provide the athletes with the tools to take ownership of their futures. If they choose to continue with sport as a career — some may even go on to become future Olympians — they must be fully aware it is not a lifetime occupation. Even the greatest athletes typically end their sporting careers in their 30s.
Communicating with athletes in their teens, who are potentially more receptive than their elder peers, is crucial.
The key is to present the information in a manner that the athletes find both enjoyable and relevant to their lives. At the end of the day, success rests on how much the athletes are willing to accept and embrace the information they receive.
As such, we are reaching out in the most modern and interactive ways possible. The Youth Olympic Games has a strong and growing presence on social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. We have created contests that challenge the online community to move away from their computer screens and get active. We have enlisted some of the world’s top athletes, including Usain Bolt, Yelena Isinbaeva and Michael Phelps, to support the athletes by acting as role models and sharing their experiences and insights.
Above all, the Youth Olympic Games and the cultural and educational activities must be fun. We want to encourage youngsters to strive to be the best they can but also to enjoy sport for sport’s sake and to continue enjoying it long after dreams of medals have faded. The Youth Olympic Games will give the athletes a chance to compete, to learn and to share experiences with other young people. It is our great hope that the athletes will act as ambassadors and be active in their communities by sharing what they learn when they return home from Singapore.
If the Youth Olympic Games can help provide the world’s youth, one athlete at a time, with a path to better, brighter, healthier futures, we will have succeeded. And very soon the Youth Olympic Games will become as much an indispensible fixture of the Olympic calendar as its ‘grown-up’ brothers.