Elite athletes are no strangers to being role models, with their exploits at events such as the Olympic Games inspiring millions of people around the world. But while most only motivate others from afar, 63 current and retired athletes were given the chance to pass on their experiences directly to the young athletes, and to local young people, as part of the Athlete Role Model (ARM) programme at the Youth Olympic Games (YOG) Buenos Aires 2018.
Chosen by the International Federations of the 32 sports on the YOG programme, the ARMs were all experienced elite athletes, with many Olympians in the group, who were on hand to inspire and mentor the athletes during the Games, taking part in various engagement activities and workshops, as well as answering questions and offering advice during special “Chat with Champions” sessions in the Youth Olympic Village.
Among those participating were Olympic gold medallists Santiago Lange, Félix Sánchez, Helen Richardson-Walsh and Emanuel Rego, and Grand Slam tennis champion Gabriela Sabatini.
The aim of the programme was to make the ARMs as accessible as possible to the young competitors so that they could share their experiences and inspire this new generation of amazing athletes to be the best they can be both on and off the field of play. The ARMs also engaged a lot with the local public through sports initiation and presentation sessions. Here, some of those chosen as ARMs reveal their impressions of the YOG and the young athletes they were mentoring…
Santiago Lange (Argentina, sailing)
Six-time Olympian who won gold at Rio 2016 after beating lung cancer
“It was really cool to be around young people, especially at an Olympic Games in my own country. I enjoyed chatting to the athletes; every day they asked me all sorts of questions – about the future, about things I have done in my career. Sometimes they came to me upset because of a bad performance. That’s interesting because when you are young, you live in your own world, so when a regatta goes wrong it looks like the end of the world. Only experience can tell you that it’s a good chance to learn. I think being at the YOG is a great motivation for them to understand what the Olympic Games mean. It is such an amazing experience and, if they want to continue, they will have the benefit of knowing what it’s all about when they get to the Olympic Games in the future. And even if they don’t continue sport at the highest level, they will have still lived an incredible experience.”
Helen Richardson-Walsh (Great Britain, hockey)
Olympic gold medallist at Rio 2016 and bronze medallist at London 2012
“I’ve been amazed by the YOG. I wasn't too sure what to expect when I first got out there; I didn't know how big it was going to be, or how many people were going to be watching, but I was really impressed. There were loads of people getting involved, the stadiums looked great – they were packed – and the sports were really innovative and very exciting. It was a real honour actually to be a part of it. I've got so much from playing sport for a very long time and I wanted to stay involved personally, but also I wanted to try and give back. I feel like I've learnt so much throughout my career, through my journey, and if I'm able to offer some of that advice to the next generation of athletes, to make their journey maybe a little less stressful, then that would be fantastic, and to be involved here is brilliant.”
Danell Leyva (USA, gymnastics)
Individual all-around bronze medallist at London 2012 and parallel bars and horizontal bar silver medallist at Rio 2016
“I think the YOG is really amazing. I credit a lot of my own success to competing in a lot of international competitions while I was growing up, which allowed me to experience new places and meant that when I started competing overseas for the USA, I felt like I knew what it was all about. I think that being able to experience an event as big as this – which feels a lot like an Olympic Games – at this age will definitely set them up for their future. When I heard about the ARM programme, I said, ‘This is amazing’. To be here is such an honour; being someone who can potentially help and give back to the next generation is essentially one of my life goals. One of the things I was eager to pass on is that it’s important to enjoy and embrace every single moment of their careers – not just the final ones. For me, I felt like I didn’t really let myself enjoy any events until Rio 2016, when I knew it was going to be my last Olympic Games. It shouldn’t have to come to the last competition before you let yourself appreciate everything.”
Félix Sánchez (Dominican Republic, athletics)
Two-time Olympic champion in the 400m hurdles
“I first heard about the YOG when Luguelín Santos, who is also from the Dominican Republic, won gold in the 400m in 2010 and then went on to win a silver medal at London 2012. They did an excellent job with the organisation and replicating what an Olympic Games is like, so it was a real pleasure to go to Buenos Aires as an Athlete Role Model and share some of my experiences – both the good and the bad – from my career. I jumped at the opportunity and it’s been a nice experience for me. As someone who had such a long career, I’ve had lots of opportunities to give back – such as through my academy in the Dominican Republic – and I just love being able to do that. For me, I never had a role model to look up to, so the opportunities that these kids have now with events like this at such a young age is really important. Events like the YOG didn’t exist when I was coming up, so it’s amazing to see them gain this experience so early in their careers.”