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  • OpEd -- Youth Olympics Still Seek Spotlight


    (ATR) Just as Singapore was the perfect host for the first Summer Youth Olympic Games, there may have been no better choice than Innsbruck as the inaugural Winter YOG city.

    The city of 120,000 is among the most experienced places in the world for Olympic winter sports, hosting the 1964 and 1976 Winter Olympics as well as countless other smaller events in the nearby Tyrolean Alps.

    More than 1,000 athletes from 70 nations took part in Innsbruck YOG, seamlessly fitting into the environs for nearly two weeks. Unlike the full-scale Winter Olympics, the city wasn’t wrapped in fences and studded with barricades and security cordons. In fact, Singapore -- with its Olympic-style security -- was fortress-like in comparison to Innsbruck, which offered open and easy movement about the city.

    “Back to basics” is how IOC member Richard Carrion labeled the experience of an Olympics without suffocating security. Now unthinkable during the regular Games, athletes, media, officials and IOC members rode a common shuttle to venues, the YOG Village, media center and other points in the region. The uncomplicated bus system worked well and was augmented to meet times of peak travel.

    We can only hold our breath and hope that the YOG continue trouble-free. If the Youth Olympics, summer or winter, are to thrive, it probably would help if the demands of security did not overwhelm the event for these impressionable teen athletes or make them such a hassle to attend that spectators and media say “no thanks”.

    Even the discovery of a buried World War Two bomb near the medals plaza did not sabotage the mood. The ordnance was defused without incident, cancelling medals presentations – but not the concert.

    ATR Editor Ed Hula in Innsbruck. (ATR)
    To see venues filled with spectators for outdoor and indoor events (tickets were free) was another testament to the choice of Innsbruck as an Olympic host. Whether for hockey or snowboard, Innsbruckers know the sports and turned out to cheer.

    The vagaries of weather interrupted the schedule a few times, but with Innsbruck’s experience and a schedule that had room for adjustment, changes were made as needed.

    Crowds for the nightly medals ceremony held in a plaza in the old city of Innsbruck verged on disappointing. Opening night drew about 2,000, enough to half-fill the plaza. Days later the crowds dropped to a few hundred for the two-hour show that included upwards of an hour of repetitive medal presentations followed by concerts sponsored by Samsung, the groups chosen to appeal to the tastes of the teens. Closing ceremony was held in the medals plaza, its capacity shrunk to 4,000.

    The age difference between many of the IOC members presenting medals and the young recipients was striking –nearly 60 years in some cases. Younger IOC members presented, too, but maybe the YOG ceremonies should largely be their domain, especially for athlete IOC members? In all, 102 IOC members, both active and retired, are reported to have attended the Innsbruck YOG.

    Symbolism was not lost for the first medal presented at the Innsbruck YOG. U.S. IOC member Anita DeFrantz, an outspoken advocate for women and sport, handed out the medals for women’s ski jump. It was the event’s debut after years of campaigning to join the Winter Olympic program.

    Even as it insists on awarding YOG medals in ceremonies identical to the big-time Olympics, the IOC is trying to de-emphasize the importance of medals at the YOG. No official tally was kept by the IOC or Innsbruck 2012. In case you were wondering: Germany was first with 17, followed by Japan and Russia at 16, China at 15, Austria 14.

    As such, the YOG may be a valuable proving ground for new events such as women’s ski jump, slopestyle and mixed team competitions before they enter the regular program of the Games.

    While IOC members seemed happy with the experience of the YOG, it will be up to them to evaluate the future of this enterprise. However, that reckoning would still be some time away.  London 2012 will be the first Olympics to presumably see the impact of the 2010 YOG, but it may take until 2016 in
    Rio de Janeiro. Innsbruck’s impact will be felt by 2014 in some sports, 2018 in others. It may be 2020 or even later before any serious evaluation of the YOG is feasible.

    Through the next few YOG, the IOC will spend $50 million to help pay for the Games. Without generating income from TV rights or sponsorships, the YOG is on its way to becoming a serious cost center for the IOC.

    The payoff would come from a slew of YOG athletes stepping onto the podium during the Olympic Games – and staying there. That may be the ultimate test for YOG alumni: whether the lessons learned in Singapore and Innsbruck, Nanjing and Lillehammer, lead them to avoid positive drug tests or other breaches of fair play.

    It is far less certain that the IOC will reap significant attention from the media. The coverage of the two YOGs held so far have barely pushed the needle in the consciousness of the public.

    While the IOC may trumpet the digital and social media reach of the YOG, traditional forms of media are overlooking this event. USA Today, which takes the largest single tranche of credentials from the U.S. for Olympic credentials, did not report from Innsbruck. And it took the bomb scare midway through the Games to remind the all-important daily that the YOG was underway in Innsbruck.

    The Austrian Olympic Committee, which had a major role overseeing the YOG, has come out a winner.

    It bid for the Games in 2008 as it was struggling to overcome the disappointment of two consecutive defeats for Salzburg for the Winter Olympics. And it won the vote despite the OOC nearly being suspended for flagrant doping violations at the 2002 and 2006 Winter Games. Since then a new management team has come aboard for the OOC.

    Austrian Olympic leaders still think the Winter YOG are the best that they could hope for. The YOG experience would suggest the OOC could aim higher.

    Written by Ed Hula.

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