The Youth Olympic Games (YOG) have proved to be a pioneering mixture of elite sport, culture and education – but they’re also the ideal incubator for those with serious ambitions. While not everyone who participates goes on to represent their country later in life, those who do often cite their YOG experience when it comes to adapting to the Olympic stage.
Ten years on from the 119th IOC Session, when former IOC President Jacques Rogge formally announced plans for the Youth Olympic Games, the alumni of the first four editions are impressive. Take Chad le Clos, who used Singapore 2010 as a stepping stone to London 2012, where he won the 200m butterfly. “Singapore helped me ‘break my duck’,” he said while visiting the Nanjing 2014 YOG. “I learned about reporting on time, media zones, drug testing, press conferences, medal ceremonies. It was an eye-opener. Before that, I thought you’d just rock up and swim. I was much more comfortable in London as a result.”
Le Clos wasn’t alone. Cuban boxer Robeisy Ramirez won the 54kg boxing in Singapore and transferred seamlessly to win gold at London 2012. He then overcame Shakur Stevenson (himself a Nanjing 2014 YOG champion) to win at Rio 2016. Stevenson turned pro and has been nicknamed “the next Floyd Mayweather” by Mayweather himself.
Britain’s Jade Jones also stood out: her aggressive taekwondo style developed neatly while grabbing the Singapore title. “I’ve had the experience here – it’s an Olympic set-up,” she said after the final. “So I know what it’s going to be like in London. I’ve just got to keep on winning.” And win she did: Jones’ chops were honed to perfection as she topped the podium at her home Olympic Games, and at Rio 2016.
Also notable from the inaugural YOG were Australian canoeist Jessica Fox, who earned bronze at Rio 2016 following her silver in London; Tom Daley, the British diver who travelled to the YOG as 10m diving world champion and later won London 2012 bronze; and Koki Niwa, the double YOG gold medallist who’s now considered Japan’s big table tennis hope.
Fencer Alex Massialas, meanwhile, became the first US athlete to win both a YOG and an Olympic Games medal – gaining silver in the foil at both Singapore and Rio 2016. Now ranked world number 1, he’ll be seeking the summit of the podium at Tokyo 2020.
Winter YOG athletes have fared equally well. At Innsbruck 2012, 15-year-old Sara Takanashi of Japan won the first event of the Games, the women’s ski jump (the YOG were trailblazing here: the event made its Olympic debut, before being added to the senior programme at Sochi 2014). Takanashi has since become one of the most successful jumpers in the sport’s history, claiming five world championship medals.
Similar advances were repeated elsewhere. Russian figure skater Liza Tuktamysheva and German luger Jacqueline Lölling have both become world champions in their sports since winning YOG gold. Norwegian slopestyle specialist Tiril Sjåstad Christiansen has won an X Games title, while the Republic of Korea’s short track speed skater Suk Hee Shim was part of the team that took the women’s 3,000m relay title at Sochi 2014. Fellow YOG medallists Summer Britcher (USA, luge), Aaron Blunck (USA, freestyle skiing) and Benjamin Maier (Austria, bobsleigh) are also making waves.
German biathlete Franziska Preuss was perhaps the star of the show in Austria, winning three golds and a silver. She too has started to impress at senior level. “I learned a lot in Innsbruck; it changed my life,” she said four years later. “How to win over a big crowd, how to manage the media. I decided to really push myself hard in training, because in my mind the Olympic Games are a constant focus.”
Inevitably, three years on, some of Nanjing 2014’s finest are now beginning to make a senior mark, too. Perhaps the most notable is weightlifter Sara Ahmed. After winning YOG gold, she earned bronze at Rio 2016, becoming Egypt's first-ever female Olympic medallist. Zambian Sydney Siame, who won the 100m, is meanwhile looking to fill the void created by Usain Bolt’s retirement. Still just 19, he ran a remarkable 9.87 seconds in qualifying for the 2017 World Athletics Championships.
Golf made its YOG debut in Nanjing (another innovative move that would be matched by the Olympic Games two years later), and the gold medal was clinched by Italy’s Renato Paratore. He’s now an impressive professional, and his Nordea Masters crown this year made him the youngest victor on the European Tour since 2013.
Thailand’s taekwondo sensation Panipak Wongpattanakit is another YOG gold medallist-turned-world champion (2015), while China’s Fan Zhendong (table tennis) and Wang Yan (gymnastics) have the ability to back their Nanjing 2014 medals up with world and Olympic podium places.
The most inspiring story from Nanjing 2014? Perhaps the tale of Kyle Chalmers, who’d have disappeared under the radar of many observers in 2014. There, he clocked three swimming relay bronzes. At Rio 2016, however, a month after his 18th birthday, he took the 100m freestyle gold medal in dramatic style. A year later still, Chalmers had heart surgery to treat a rare medical condition. He’s expected back in the pool soon.
Next to have an impact will be the participants of the Lillehammer 2016 Winter Youth Olympic Games. Sixty-four athletes from Innsbruck 2012 progressed to Sochi 2014; and the number who progress from the Norwegian edition to PyeongChang 2018 is expected to be higher.
While the USA’s Chloe Kim was an outlier (the snowboarder has been famous since the age of 13), it’ll be fascinating to see whether the likes of USA’s River Radamus, who dominated the men’s alpine skiing, can make the hop from youth podium to the big stage. Others to watch will include Swiss skier Mélanie Meillard, who’s putting in fine performances on the FIS circuit, and the Republic of Korea’s Magnus Kim, fresh from winning the Asian Winter Games cross-country gold medal. He’ll be desperate for the same colour on home soil in February.