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12 Oct 2010
IOC News

Youth Olympic Games: Welcome to the Family

Olympic Review’s Michael Stoneman looks back on the first Youth Olympic Games, which saw 3,600 young athletes from around the world meet in Singapore for 12 days of world-class sport and engaging cultural activities.

"I feel like an expectant father waiting in the delivery room,” declared IOC President Jacques Rogge, just hours before the Opening Ceremony of the first ever Youth Olympic Games. Only three years earlier, the idea of creating a new event to inspire and educate young athletes was being approved at the IOC Session in Guatemala City, and now Rogge’s vision was about to become a reality, as Singapore prepared to host the inaugural edition of the Youth Olympic Games.

The city-state had only been named as host in February 2008, and the Singapore Youth Olympic Games Organising Committee, led by Ser Miang Ng, had worked tirelessly for two years to bring the Games to fruition.

When the countdown was finally completed, the first new Olympic event since the inaugural Olympic Winter Games in 1924 was ready to begin, kicking off in spectacular fashion with a dazzling Opening Ceremony that took place in the shadow of Singapore's awe-inspiring skyline.

With countless fireworks illuminating the night sky, and spectacular dance routines wowing the assembled crowd from the world’s largest floating stage, the scene was set for the birth of the newest member of the Olympic family. With the lighting of the innovative ‘Tornado Flame’ that would burn brightly in Singapore for the next 12 days, the first Youth Olympic Games were finally under way, and the attention shifted to the city's sporting arenas, where the performances were no less impressive.

Bringing together 3,600 young athletes, aged between 14 and 18, Singapore 2010 saw new stars shine brightly and heart-warming stories emerge. Among the eye-catching performances were Chinese swimmer Tang Yi's amazing haul of six gold medals in the pool, and the three golds and one bronze won by Russian gymnast Viktoria Komova, marking them both out as undoubted stars of the future.

“I’m overwhelmed," said Tang after securing her sixth gold, in the mixed 4x100m medley relay. “I’m grateful to my coach and the team members for their encouragement and love.”

Komova, meanwhile, was already targeting the Olympic Games after her YOG success. “When I was standing on top of the podium I was extremely happy and proud,” she said after winning gold in the all-round event. “It will be easier for me  now to prepare for the Olympic Games in London and compete there.”

Elsewhere, the Haiti boys’ football team made an emotional march to the gold medal match, losing 5-0 to Bolivia but winning the hearts of the Haitian public, who are still struggling to come to terms with the earthquake that devastated the island in January. “Being at the Games has been an amazing experience,” said Haiti captain Daniel Gedeon. “I think everyone in Haiti is excited by what we've achieved.”

By the end of the Games, there were 14 world junior records broken in Singapore, underlining the quality of the sporting competition, while almost half of the 205 participating NOCs had enjoyed medal success, including a first Olympic gold medal for Vietnam and a first Olympic medal for Jordan.

Show jumper Dalma Rushdi H Malhas also made headlines by becoming the first Saudi Arabian woman to compete in an Olympic event, before claiming the bronze medal in the individual jumping discipline. “I’m very happy that I got the chance to compete and change the way it’s been. I hope that this will be a door that will open many other possibilities for all other Saudi girls,” she said afterwards. “Being the first female from Saudi Arabia makes me happy but the medal is what I am happier about.”

The sports themselves were the focus of much attention as well, with new disciplines that were introduced especially for Singapore 2010 – such as 3-on-3 basketball, head-to-head canoe-kayak races and a combined team event in cycling, amongst others – catching the imaginations of both fans and athletes.

The adapted basketball format, where the teams consisted of only three players, also proved a hit with President Rogge. “It is a very exciting event,” he said. “I like the format very much, you know it’s an extrapolation of how basketball was played in the inner cities and backyards. The rules are clear, there is suspense and obviously the players love it.”

Other innovations included the introduction of events featuring mixed-gender and mixed-NOC teams, such as triathlon relays, archery, table tennis, fencing and swimming relays, to name but a few, which added a completely new element to the sporting competition and proved particularly popular with the athletes.

“It was a neat experience,” said American Greg Massialas, who won bronze in the mixed-NOC team fencing event. “It's cool to compete as Team USA, but on the other hand you get to know other athletes better through this competition, make new friends and really embrace the Olympic spirit.”

Sport was far from the only focus of attention in Singapore, however. The Youth Olympic Games also featured a unique Culture and Education Programme (CEP) that ran alongside the sporting competition, giving all participants the chance to interact with each other and learn more about different cultures, as well as topics such as Olympism, the environment, health, career planning and social responsibility.

The programme also offered athletes the opportunity to speak to inspirational mentors, including both current and former Olympians, as part of the Chat with Champions sessions, which proved particularly popular in the Youth Olympic Village. It was the manner in which all 50 CEP activities were embraced by the athletes, however, that ensured that the programme was deemed a resounding success.

“We tried to develop events and experiences that did not feel like a school or college environment,”  said Patrick Stalder of the IOC’s Youth Olympic Games department. “We didn’t want this to be traditional education because we knew we had to engage athletes in a different way – learning by doing and sharing. Education is not just bringing in new ideas from the outside but ensuring the athletes are sharing things among themselves.”

Reigning Olympic pole vault champion Yelena Isinbaeva was in Singapore as a YOG Ambassador and revealed how impressed she was with the event after taking part in a Chat with Champions evening, while also highlighting how pleased she was to pass on her advice to aspiring athletes. “First of all, I am happy I can help young athletes,” she said. “It’s kind of an inspiration when I see the passion in their eyes – a hungry feeling, they just don’t know what is coming. This inspired me and I hope it inspires them too. I hope they take these experiences back to their friends at home.”

Fellow ambassadors Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps also played a part in Singapore with personal video messages played for the athletes at the Opening and Closing Ceremonies and during the evening festivals in the village.

Social media networks brought the excitement of the Games to young people around the world as the IOC reached out on Facebook, Flickr and Twitter. More than half of the 3.6 million fans across the Olympic Facebook platforms are between the ages of 13 and 24. The Singapore 2010 and Youth Olympic Games pages now have more than 100,000 “fans”. Videos on the Youth Olympic Games Channel were viewed over seven million times, and at one point it was the third most watched YouTube channel worldwide.

The athletes participating in Singapore 2010 were joined by 29 Young Reporters, who actively provided content to the international media, while 30 Young Ambassadors supported and mentored their national delegations. Over 40 Athlete Role Models from the International Federations and International Olympic Committee also offered advice and tips to the athletes in and around the Athletes’ Village.

British diver Tom Daley was in the unique position of having already competed in the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games before he arrived in Singapore for the YOG, meaning he was well placed to talk about the differences between the two events. “I thought it was a great idea to mix the education along with the competition and it is very much like an Olympic Games,” he said. “The way that this has been targeted to a younger audience has made it a really cool and fun event.”

The 16-year-old also revealed that the YOG were likely to help young athletes prepare for the possibility of one day competing in the Olympic Games. “This experience in Singapore will help so many athletes make that extra step and go onto the world stage on a senior level. I would have loved to have had this opportunity before Beijing. To have a Youth Olympic Games, with multi sports, a massive village and things like that would have helped me know what it was going to be like at the Olympic Games.”

The positive reactions of athletes and fans from all over the world highlight just what a success the inaugural YOG were, with President Rogge indicating that the response had even taken him by surprise. “The Youth Olympic Games vastly exceeded my highest expectations,” he said.
“One of the greatest successes of the Games was how the athletes embraced the Culture and Education Programme. It was a huge success, greater than anything we had imagined.

“The list of things that exceeded expectations is extensive, which is why Singapore ranks right up there in terms of the best Olympic Games I have ever attended,” he continued. “These were very intimate Games and the athletes felt they had become members of a family.”

Indeed, when a spectacular Closing Ceremony brought the inaugural YOG to an emotional close, it was clear that Rogge's baby – and the 3,600 athletes that took part – had become fully grown members of the Olympic family. As the IOC President said to the assembled athletes as the Youth Olympic Flame was extinguished: “Years from now, when you reflect on your sports career, you will be able to say ‘I was in Singapore, where it all began’.”

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