YOG athletes strike gold at PyeongChang 2018
Former Winter Youth Olympic Games (YOG) athletes Lim Hyo-jun of the Republic of Korea, Andreas Wellinger of Germany and David Gleirscher of Austria were in the limelight during the first weekend of PyeongChang 2018, winning gold in the men's short track speed skating, ski jumping and luge respectively. Meanwhile on day three of the Games, two former YOG stars, Sara Takanashi of Japan and Katharina Althaus of Germany made the podium in the women's ski jumping, taking silver and bronze.
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.
Wellinger, a year older than the ROK skater and a winner in the team ski jumping event at Innsbruck 2012, took the honours in the individual normal hill at the Alpensia Ski Jumping Centre later in the day. It was the second Olympic Winter Games medal of his career, the first having come in the team large hill at Sochi 2014.
Austria’s Gleirscher, another YOG graduate of Innsbruck 2012, produced one of the shocks of the 2018 Winter Games so far, when he dethroned the two-time Olympic champion and hot favourite Felix Loch (GER) in the men’s luge.
In claiming the Republic of Korea’s first medal of PyeongChang, Lim Hyo-jun turned in a sparkling performance, winning his heat and his semi-final before sending the home fans wild with a composed display in the nine-man final.
Hitting the front ahead of the final lap, he held off Sjinkie Knegt of the Netherlands – the world record holder at the distance – to fulfil the rich promise he showed at Innsbruck 2012.
“I’m stunned and it’s unbelievable, but it’s not finished yet,” said Lim Hyo-jun. “I will also be trying my best for the relay on the 22nd.”
“I was very overwhelmed because it’s my home country,” he added. “I wanted to show the very best attitude and try as hard as I could, but the coach said, ‘Don’t get too stressed. Just relax’. I did what he said and I think that led to better results.”
As for Wellinger, he owed his gold to a prodigious second-round leap of 113.5 metres, which gave him a combined points total of 259.3 points and first place ahead of Norway’s Johann Andre Forfang.
Second in the prestigious Four Hills tournament in January, Wellinger then endured a nervous wait as the four jumpers ahead of him after the first round – among them defending champion Kamil Stoch of Poland – attempted to beat his total. It was a wait that ended with the young German’s face wreathed in smiles.
“I can’t believe it,” said Wellinger after mastering the windy conditions. “The second jump was especially amazing. To be on top like this, I can’t describe it. It’s crazy for me. I want to say thanks to my family and the team behind me. This wouldn’t work without them.”
He added: “I knew in last few days that I was competing at a high level. I won the qualification round and I felt good. I knew I could produce my best jump. But to win the Olympic gold medal? I don’t know what else to say.”
As both he and Hyo-jun showed on Saturday, they are two young athletes who have come a long way from the YOG stage and will surely have plenty more to say throughout their careers.
The stuff of fairytales
After claiming a dramatic gold in the final run of the men’s luge on 11 February, the 23-year-old Gleirscher declared:
“This is quite unbelievable," said an ecstatic Gleischer. “It has been like a fairytale. I never made a podium at a World Cup and now here I am at the top of the podium.”
After just three days of competition at PyeongChang 2018, all five young medallists have underlined, once again, that the YOG can provide talented young athletes with a huge springboard for success at senior level.
About the Youth Olympic Games
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.