Youth Olympic Games – a new opportunity but not without its contradictions

The inaugural Youth Olympic Games (YOG) are currently being held in Singapore, and the handball competition has just gotten underway. This event is being proclaimed by the IOC as a new important feature with its own particular objectives and characteristics. The IOC president, Jacques Rogge, feels a special ownership of the YOG, which he is presenting as his personal idea. In doing so, he tries to emphasize that, unlike in the ‘real’ Olympics, in the YOG the focus should not be on competitiveness, on winners and losers, or on medals and nationalism. Instead it should be on the broad participation of youth in sports, on education and awareness (for instance regarding anti-doping, ethics, and fair play), and on an opportunity for cross-cultural learning.

This means, for instance, that the IOC does not publish a medal count (although media certainly keep track), and it is said that the IOC President tried to resist the idea of having flags, hymns and a medal podium, but that the majority of his IOC colleagues prevailed. Similarly, the organization of the event should take relatively modest forms, but this of course is not quite as the authorities of Singapore really prefer it to be; they want to show off their capacity and abilities. For instance, the opening ceremony became a somewhat more glamorous affair than the IOC had hoped. There are also educational seminars and cultural events available to all the participants, but it is not clear how well-attended this events really are.

The YOG has its critics, both within the IOC and outside. Foremost among them is perhaps the IOC veteran Richard Pound, former Chief of WADA (the IOC Anti-Doping Agency), who is even staying away from Singapore, and many sports federation officials and academics around the world. They do not take issue with the principles and objectives, but many feel that in practice the whole idea is unrealistic and could even have negative effects.

It is noted that one cannot ‘order’ the participants, the nations and the media to set aside a focus on winning. The YOG is not likely to do a lot to cause new masses of youth around the world to become engaged in sport; in fact, its existence may push the competitiveness further down into the age groups, creating elitism, with segregation and elimination of the less talented at a younger age. It is also noted that that IOC does not have the kind of reputation that would make it well-placed to educate athletes about ethics and anti-corruption.

All the 26 Olympic summer sports participate in the YOG, although in some cases in modified forms or with special qualification and selection rules for the teams and the athletes. The 3600 athletes (in ages 14-18) are more evenly distributed by continent and country, and in individual sports there can be only one participant by nation. Some sports, like soccer, have quite deliberately gone for a selection that fits the spirit of the YOG; the participants are generally teams of a modest caliber: for instance, boys teams from Haiti and Zimbabwe, and girls teams from Iran, Trinidad, Equatorial Guinea, and Papua & New Guinea. In handball, the top teams of the respective continents are included, which makes for a tough task for the Oceania representatives, the girls from Australia and the boys from Cook Islands.

Some of the 26 sports experiment with new variations or with different rules, in comparison with the ‘real’ Olympics. For instance, basketball uses a half-court game, with 3 players against 3. (Perhaps something for handball in those many places where the available courts are too small…) Cycling goes for a combination of BMX, Mountain bike, Time trial, and Cross-country, perhaps an idea that will catch on. In Modern Pentathlon the riding has been eliminated. In gymnastics there is a new feature involving acrobatics. In a couple of sports there will also be something as unusual as ‘mixed gender’ competition. This involves judo and also swimming relays. However, while the IOC President made some proud pronouncements about this experimentation, senior NBC representatives were heard commenting that it is not going far enough and that the rejuvenation of the Olympic program is generally too slow, particularly in the pursuit of younger viewers.

Returning to the handball competition, our sport lived up to some of the IOC preferences regarding staffing. Clearly it was possible to meet the expectation of having young but well-qualified referees handle the games between these young teams. It was more difficult to find young delegates and technicians with sufficient experience; but at least IHF managed to include two women among the delegates (Patricia Malik de Tchara – ARG, and Monika Hagen – SWE). When the handball competition started, the Australian girls lost 4-41 against Denmark, and the boys from Cook Islands lost 4-58 against France. (Perhaps the spirit of friendship and cross-cultural understanding had not been fully conveyed…). In line with the nature of the YOG, we will not be reporting more generally on the results and the winners of the YOG handball competition. But we will come back with a follow-up of the fate of our friends from Oceania.

Link to the official web site for the YOG:

Link to IOC's web site with coverage of the YOG:

Link to the special YouTube site for the YOG:

Link to the results page for the YOG handball competition: