Youth Olympics or Olympic Youth Festival

The inaugural Youth Olympic Games began last weekend amid much enthusiasm by the host nation, Singapore, and the leadership of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The happiest person at the realisation of these Games must have been the President of the IOC, Jacques Rogge.
The Youth Olympics
There is nonetheless reason enough to challenge the decision of the IOC to establish the Youth Olympics in the way in which it has done.
In 2007 the IOC at a session in Guatemala City, Guatemala, took the rather controversial decision to establish the Youth Olympics. As with the existing order, the organisation has planned to have the Youth Olympics in both the Summer and Winter varieties.
The IOC also determine din its own wisdom that the Youth Olympics would involve children aged 15 – 18 years, leaving each sport on the programme to determine the categories within the age band it wishes to use.
The Youth Olympics would also share the same four-year cycles ad obtains with the existing Olympics. Thus the first edition of the Summer Youth Olympics takes place this year and the second will be held in 2014. Similarly, the first Winter Youth Olympics would be held in 2012 and the second in 2016. Essentially therefore this means that the Winter Youth Olympics will always be held in the same year as the Summer Olympics while the Summer Youth Olympics will be in the year of the Winter Olympics.
The President of the IOC has insisted that the Games are to focus on participation in sport, education and cultural activities. The plans included the interweaving of the education and cultural activities between the sports. Participation in the educational and cultural aspects is considered compulsory. This is in keeping with the Olympic Principles where the focus is on mind, body and spirit – the total well being of the individual; the rounded development of the human being.
The IOC has also sought to de-emphasise the competitive aspect of sport at the Games. The decision has been to have no records established. In other words, there will not be any Youth Olympic Games 100m or 200m records in Athletics. The same would be the case for all of the sports contested. Each edition of the Games would therefore be a fresh start in so far as the competitions are concerned. This aspect of the new event appeared to be an attempt by Rogge to return to the fundamentals of Olympism where the emphasis is on participation and not on the heady conflict-ridden competitions that have now taken over international sport. At the same time there was a the matter of ensuring that the participating sports would each be allocated a quota of participants within the context of the overall ceiling established by the IOC.
To facilitate the retention of the concept of universality that the IOC considered a quintessential element of its being, the organisation maintains that every country would receive four places for athletes. This guarantees that every member of the International Olympic Family would be in attendance.
As obtains with the existing Olympic Games the IOC also insisted on putting a cap on the number of athletes and officials that would be accepted to be part of the Youth Olympics.
Critical issues
At first the international federations (IF) seemed quite perplexed by the IOC proposals for the first edition of the Summer Youth Olympics.
Around the world there was much concern that many young athletes, already accustomed to participating in the world youth championships of their respective sports would not be keen on attending.
The decision to de-emphasise the competitive aspect of the Games did not appear to go down well with some IFs. Some thought that once this was declared to the international sports community there would be a significant decline in interest in the event to such an extent that many NOCs would experience great difficulties in getting their best youth athletes to attend.
In some countries sport has become so competitive that there would be no interest in attending a competition where there are no bragging rights and no records to beat.
One of the big questions was precisely how to determine the participants outside of the designated universal places and at the same time ensure that the ceiling number of participants is not exceeded. The decision was taken to establish qualifying standards for the varying sports on the Games programme. To some however this seemed contradictory. After all it was originally stated that there would be no records established at the Games. The idea of having athletes meet some qualifying standards suggests that they must engage in fierce competition around the world to get to the Games. This all seemed too confusing and some individual national sports federations (NF) began discussing their own non involvement.
The case of athletics can be mentioned here. The Americas was granted an overall quota of athletes. But the Americas involves the two North American nations, Canada and USA, Central America, the Caribbean and finally, South America. The decision was taken to have the USA and Canada each conduct their own trials, then Central America organise their qualifying competition, the Caribbean and South America to do the same. It was recommended that the various components of the Americas host their qualifications at the same time and then the performances would be evaluated before the qualifiers are announced.
The Caribbean athletes were told that the Carifta Games 2010 in Cayman Islands was their qualifying competition. Since the Carifta Games has tow categories, Under 17 and Under 20, the implements used in the field events are different from the Under 18s at Youth Championships. The height of some of the hurdles events was also different. This meant that some athletes were called upon on the final day of competition at Carifta to engage in some special events to satisfy the qualification requirements. They had already completed three days of gruelling competition, some were nursing injuries sustained at Carifta and the additional events made no sense whatsoever. Some NFs advised their athletes not to contest for a place in the Youth Olympics.
There are yet others who suggest that if the IOC was committed to establishing Youth Games on a major scale consideration should have been given to first having the Continental organisations under its ambit conduct their own Youth Games. This would have allowed for critical analysis of the merits and demerits of the proposals. For some strange reason the IOC insisted on going global immediately, giving itself a mere three years before the first edition came on stream.
Global challenges
Some argued that the international sports calendar is already quite full and that there must be room left for international federations to organise competitions at all levels if they are to survive in the increasingly competitive global sports environment. The IOC is the owner of the world’s largest sporting spectacle with tremendous sponsorship and television rights deals almost ad infinitum. To have the IOC therefore increase its products in today’s environment would mean near catastrophe for some IFs.
Already for example, in 2010 the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) has cut its development budget by over 30 percent. The competition preparation grants that have been in place for several years have been reduced in some instances and removed altogether in others. The number of long-term sponsors has been drastically reduced by comparison with previous years.
One would not have expected this to happen to track and field at a time when Usain Bolt has changed the face of the sport but that is the reality.
The fact is that in the global environment sport is one of the fastest growing business areas. This means that we are into a dog-eat-dog world where there is survival of the fittest only.
FIFA, the governing body for Football has raised the bar by ensuring that each of its categories, including women, are facilitated with world championships. This flows naturally from the respective regional and continental championships.
The demands of NFs for sponsorship are great. The demands from regional and continental bodies have grown considerably. At the international level the demands are phenomenal. There is a limit to what can be achieved and the competition grows fiercer daily.
The Central American and Caribbean Games (CAC), the oldest multisport Games after the Olympics, having started in 1926 compared to the Olympics, which began in 1986, has been unable to attract regional sponsors.
With the IOC coming into the picture, NFs would be hard-pressed to keep pace and so too will NOCs. The latter will increasingly place responsibility for teams on the NFs.
Olympic Festival
There are many who believe that instead of having established the Youth Olympic Games the IOC should instead have focused on the creation of Olympic Youth Festivals.
Olympic Youth Festivals emphasise participation in an atmosphere that engenders greater friendships than is possible at the Olympics. While we continue to boast of the existing Olympic Games as promoting the Olympic values this is less the case with each edition in the modern era. Today’s professional athletes participate in the Olympics because of the tremendous exposure it offers them. They do not need prize money at the Olympics because winning the gold provides them with access to great sponsorship deals and a certain future. Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps are the finest and latest example of this.
The professionals come to the Games two to three days prior to their competition and leave immediately following the conclusion of their participation. They hardly interact with others since their agents and managers are too keen on having them at a distance. Many do not even stay in the Games Village, defeating the whole purpose of their being there.
Given the state of sport today the ideals of Olympism can perhaps best be expressed in Olympic Festivals and much less so in the Youth Olympics.
Perhaps it is that the current IOC is still in need of comprehensive review. The Youth Olympics may well be the current IOC president’s legacy to the International Olympic Movement.
Samaranch seemed very concerned with the establishment of one legacy after another and some feel that by the end of his tenure he may well have thought that he was the Olympic Movement. The IOC under his own leadership appeared to ignore his seemingly fascist past even as the international community continued its search for Nazi criminals, choosing instead to highlight the entry of the IOC into the global business environment.
IOC presidents may well find themselves ignoring the extent to which their personalities and their thirst for global legacies have taken them outside the realm of the intent of the organisation’s founding fathers and more importantly, outside the very values theys eek to promote.