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Your Primer on the Youth Olympic Games

By Sean Jensen, SportsEngine, 07/24/18, 9:30AM CDT

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Don't call it a 'mini-Olympics' Click here to find out what makes the Youth Olympic Games unique

The Olympic Games are universally known as the leading international sporting events for summer and winter athletes from over 200 nations. But the Youth Olympic Games? Here is a primer:

Chad le Clos of South Africa and Chloe Kim of the United States were breakout stars at the 2012 London Olympics and 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, respectively. But they’re among dozens of summer and winter athletes who provided a peek at their potential beforehand at another international sporting event.

Le Clos won five medals, including a gold in the 200-meter medley, at the inaugural Youth Olympic Games in Singapore in 2012. Then le Clos stunned the world — and swimming legend Michael Phelps — by winning the 200-meter butterfly in London. Kim dominated the slopestyle and halfpipe events at the Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer in 2016 then cruised to the top of the podium in the halfpipe in PyeongChang.

“I literally had so much fun here,” Kim told TeamUSA.org during the 2016 Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer. “I didn’t expect any of this, and I didn’t know it would be that much fun … I met so many people right off the bat, and it was awesome.”

The Olympic Games are universally known as the leading international sporting events for summer and winter athletes from over 200 nations. But the Youth Olympic Games? Here is a primer:

What is it?

The Youth Olympic Games was conceived by Austrian industrial manager Johann Rosenzopf in 1998 as childhood obesity raged and youth participating in sports declined. International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge formally introduced the Youth Olympic Games in Guatemala City on July 6, 2007. He highlighted four components: Bringing the world’s best young athletes together, introducing them into Olympism, innovating in education and debating Olympic values.

“These Youth Olympic Games should not be seen as mini-Olympic Games," Rogge said at the time. "There will be competition, of course, but the main goal is not elitism. The main goal is not the competition as such. The main goal is to give the youngsters an education based on Olympic values: friendship, fair play, non-violence and a rejection of any form of doping. All these values that are, in a way, not easy to transmit to athletes in the normal Olympic Games.”

The age limitation of the athletes is 14 to 18. The mission of the Youth Olympic Games is to educate, engage and influence young athletes and other young participants, inspiring them to play an active role in their communities. Athletes are encouraged to “Compete, Learn and Share.”

So when not practicing or competing, athletes participate in workshops and activities that focus on skills and career development, environment, social responsibility and discovering different cultures, languages and sporting disciplines.

The inaugural Youth Olympic Games was held August 14-26, 2010 in Singapore and included 3,600 athletes competing in 26 sports. The first Winter Youth Olympic Games were held in Innsbruck, Austria with 1,059 athletes.

In terms of events, some of them are not-traditional formats such as 3-on-3 basketball and an ice hockey skills challenge. New events are often debuted at the Youth Olympics Games, including BMX freestyle, kiteboarding, futsal and beach handball.

More than a competition

Non-athlete participants are key to the Youth Olympic Games experience. Students were empowered to design the visual profile, medals and mascots for the Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer.

For the Design the Medal competition, there were over 300 entries from 50 nations. The winner was Muhamad Farid Husen of Indonesia, whose entry was titled “Fireworks of Victory.”

"This medal was inspired by fireworks,” Husen told olympic.org. “Fireworks representing the excitement and the glory of the Youth Olympic Games where all nations come together as one to participate and celebrate. Fireworks fly to the sky, giving the reflection of how the young athletes are reaching their dreams.”

As for winning the competition, Husen added, “It is really an honor for me to be a little part of Youth Olympic Games. My dream came true.”

The Youth Olympic Games also includes a program for ambassadors, reporters and role models. As an example, the Young Reporters Program provides journalism students, between the ages of 18 and 24, on-the-job experience during the Youth Olympic Games.

Mentorship is also emphasized. After being named the first Youth Olympic Games Ambassador for the Winter Youth Olympic Games in 2012, three-time U.S. Olympian Lindsey Vonn returned in a mentorship role for the 2016 Youth Olympic Games. Other notable ambassadors include figure skating champion Yuna Kim of South Korea, sprinting champion Usain Bolt of Jamaica, Phelps and basketball player Yao Ming of China.

At the Youth Olympics Games, there are also “Try the Sport” opportunities for spectators.

How does it help?

It can be overwhelming for some young athletes who aren’t accustomed to leaving home — let alone their country — or competing before massive crowds. Luger Tucker West competed at the 2012 Youth Olympic Games in Innsbruck, and he noted the similarity in the credentialing, security and transportation to the Olympics. Young athletes also get to experience for the first time the famed Athletes Village.

“(The Youth Olympic Games) felt exactly like the Olympics did in 2014,” West told TeamUSA.org. “You got the feeling of competing under stress, what your body does during that time. You got to understand security and all that. All these curve balls that if it’s your first time at the Olympics, you just don't expect. It throws some athletes off, but since we had done it at the Youth Olympics, I kind of knew what to expect.”

Australian snowboarder Emily Arthur participated in the 2016 Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer.

“It was one of the greatest experiences I have ever had and it was a really big deal for me at the time,” the Olympic silver medalist in the halfpipe told olympic.org. “It was also great preparation for the Olympic Winter Games, and made coming to PyeongChang a little easier, as it is just like everything is on a bigger scale than it was at the YOG.

“It just goes to show how good a stepping-stone it can be and I think it really prepares you for the Games.”

In PyeongChang, Arthur recalled a funny moment.

“I was at the dining hall and there was a whole group of us together and we just said, 'Hey look, it’s the Youth Olympic gang!' We were (remembering) some of the times we had together in Norway.”

The Youth Olympic Games also provides another unique opportunity: To compete in mixed-country events. For instance, In 2012, the mixed skating team event was won by Jordan Bauth of the United States, Eugenia Tkachenka and Yuri Hulitski of Belarus, and Shoma Uno of Japan.

What’s next?

The next Youth Olympic Games will be October 6-18 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. New sports making their debut on the Olympic stage: sport climbing, dance sport, karate and roller sports.

About Sean Jensen

Sean Jensen was born in South Korea, but he was raised in California, Massachusetts and Virginia, mostly on or near military bases. Given his unique background, he's always been drawn to storytelling, a skill he developed at Northwestern University and crafted for the last 16 years, almost exclusively covering the NFL. Sean lives in a Minneapolis suburb with his wife, two children and dog. Read more

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