Everyone at the recent winter Youth Olympic
Games in Lillehammer, Norway was agreed. The games represented a unique
learning and participation experience for all involved. And yet… Callum
Murray reports.

What exactly is the sporting and
educational value of a single event, held once every four years, involving a paltry
1,100 athletes aged between 15 and 18, from 71 countries?

Can the IOC really succeed in its lofty aim
of changing global attitudes of young people to sport through such a rarefied
and elite initiative?

And, with no revenues at all to offset the
considerable costs (which in the case of the Lillehammer games involved, among
other things, the IOC co-funding the Olympic Village, which was due to become
student accommodation after the games), how is the return on its investment to
be measured?

Thomas Bach the International Olympic Committee president, was in no doubt ahead of the games that the benefits of the event would outweigh the costs – despite admitting that at that stage those costs were yet to be finalised. 

Replying to a question from Sportcal Insight at a press conference ahead of the start of the games, Bach said: “Yes, the benefits are worth the costs. As for the figure, we will have to see the accounts. We can only see once the budgets are finalised. Numbers are very important, but money is always only there to serve a purpose and the purpose is obvious.

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“We are not approaching the organisation [of the games] with a view to saying ‘here is a certain amount of money we are willing to spend’. We are approaching it from the other point of view, of looking at the projects and seeing how they can be funded, together with the organising committee and the [Norwegian] national Olympic committee.”

Bach’s statement appeared intended as a ringing endorsement of the concept of the Youth Olympic Games, the brainchild of his predecessor Jacques Rogge. Others have their reservations.

One senior IOC member and national Olympic
committee president told us confidentially that many of his fellow members are
uncomfortable with the concept of the Youth Olympics, but unwilling to
criticise it openly while its architect, Rogge, remains a strong and
influential presence in the Olympic movement in his role as honorary president.

There is an understandable reluctance to attack the creation that is seen as the main legacy of Rogge’s 12 years as IOC president, but Michael Payne, the IOC’s former marketing director, is one critical voice that has been prepared to go on the record. 

He told us: “The youth games came about as an analysis from IOC president Rogge that the IOC needed to do more to engage the youth in sport. All the general trends indicated that they were less engaged than a decade ago. That was absolutely on the money and correct.

“The issue then is whether the Youth Olympic Games, which was the single most important initiative in the 12 years of Rogge’s presidency, addresses the problem. My perspective is that the youth games are costing a lot of money. Certainly, the first two summer editions [in Singapore and Nanjing] had very limited media exposure. The youth at large had no idea they were going on. If they’re invisible, how can they begin to engage the youth? Wouldn’t the IOC have been better to invest some of the money into a real digital, social media strategy?

“The IOC president’s time and political muscle would be better served lobbying governments and world leaders to ensure that sport is kept part of the school curriculum. If it’s on the curriculum, the youth would be exposed actively as opposed to passively; and that’s assuming they will even watch [the games] in the first place.”

With two summer editions and now two winter
editions of the Youth Olympics completed, the IOC is due to undertake a major
review of the games. So are the criticisms above widely supported? And if so,
how can they be addressed? Sportcal Insight spoke to a range of Youth Olympic
stakeholders in Lillehammer to find out.


Inge Andersen, secretary general, Norwegian
Olympic Committee and member of the Lillehammer 2016 board.

With 3,200 volunteers involved and a torch relay that visited all of Norway’s 19 counties, engaging with over 30,000 young people along the way, Inge Andersen has no doubts about the reach of the games, at least in his own country. 

He is also proud that of the 133 people in
the organising committee itself, the average age was just 33, and that that age
profile extended to the chief executive himself, Tomas Holmestad, aged 34.

He tells us: “When we first decided to apply to host the games – the project started in the NOC – it was part of a 10-year youth development plan for youth in Norwegian sport. We have had an extraordinary focus on youth sport since 2012, with the aim of developing a new generation of top athletes, and a new generation of volunteers: young people who have awareness of the value of being a volunteer. To Inge Andersen, secretary general, Norwegian Olympic Committee and member of the Lillehammer 2016 board. 

With 3,200 volunteers involved and a torch relay that visited all of Norway’s 19 counties, engaging with over 30,000 young people along the way, Inge Andersen has no doubts about the reach of the games, at least in his own country. 

He is also proud that of the 133 people in
the organising committee itself, the average age was just 33, and that that age
profile extended to the chief executive himself, Tomas Holmestad, aged 34.

He tells us: “When we first decided to apply to host the games – the project started in the NOC – it was part of a 10-year youth development plan for youth in Norwegian sport. We have had an extraordinary focus on youth sport since 2012, with the aim of developing a new generation of top athletes, and a new generation of volunteers: young people who have awareness of the value of being a volunteer. To in 2010/11, according to Andersen (since then, of course, Oslo’s bid to host the 2022 winter Olympics collapsed for lack of public and political backing).

However, Andersen continues, “when the budget was decided and the money came on board, we have had fantastic co-ordination between the national Olympic committee and the organising committee, and also really good co-operation with the IOC and the state: a lot of positive energy and enthusiasm.”

That budget totalled NKr500 million ($58
million), including NKr230 million for the Olympic Village, with the IOC paying
NKr108 million of the village costs and the Norwegian state the rest. The
remaining NKr270 million was paid by the four municipalities involved, with a
small contribution also coming from the two counties that hosted events, along
with NKr40 million in local sponsorship.

This budget takes no account of the considerable travel and accommodation costs involved in sending teams, coaches, back-up personnel, national Olympic committee officials and international federation representatives from around the world to participate in the games, all of which were paid by the IOC, along with the ‘Learn and Share’ activities for athletes and coaches and the production of a daily bespoke video news service for broadcasters by the IOC’s own Olympic Broadcasting Services.


Christophe Dubi, Olympic Games executive

Asked about the benefits of the games, Dubi
is characteristically enthusiastic, referring in particular to the Learn and
Share programme, a large dedicated, central, indoor facility in which young
athletes and others could learn about a range of topics under the headings:
Your Career, Your Body & Mind, Your Stories, Your Discovery and Your

Topics included careers in sport, injury
prevention, acting as a role model (including how to avoid doping and fixing
results), sports nutrition and media training.

Dubi says: “The games offer a combination that is quite unique: what we are doing here with the Learn and Share programme alongside sports competition. For the athlete, whether they will go on to compete at the highest level or whether they will leave the sport, the games will have provided an extraordinary sporting experience, but also other dimensions which will help them as individuals, a unique experience at this stage that will be helpful in future. It’s a tool to be not only an athlete but an athlete with values.”

The games also offer the opportunity to trial new sports disciplines which are not (yet) part of the Olympics, such as, in the case of Lillehammer, cross-country cross, snowboard cross, ski slopestyle, biathlon super sprint and monobob. This, Dubi says, is the “other dimension” of the Youth Olympics, to act as a “platform or catalyst for testing new ground.”

He also cites IOC sponsor Samsung’s high- profile demonstrations of its virtual reality technology, available for athletes and others to test at various locations around the games. 

Zach Lipinski, aged 16, a Canadian skeleton
athlete competing at the games, is excited at the potential of the technology,
telling us that it could provide a great training aid to athletes such as him
in future, enabling them to test and gain experience of an overseas track
before competing at it.

Dubi says that the Youth Olympics offer opportunities to “take risks” with innovations that aren’t available at the Olympic Games. He also dismisses the argument that the reach of the games is so restricted that their global effect is negligible, pointing out that for every one of the 1,100 athletes that qualified to take part many more were involved at the base of the qualification pyramid.

He says: “All of them were trying to get here, all had an association. Multiply [the number of athletes at the games] by a factor of X. All were exposed to the concept of the Youth Olympic Games. It’s a much bigger number than the number of qualified athletes, so what we have to keep in mind is that what counts is the width of pyramid base”


Barry Maister, New Zealand

A former school principal, with long experience in the field of education, the IOC’s stated ‘vision’ for the Youth Olympic Games – “to inspire young people around the world to participate in sport and live by the Olympic values” – is close to Barry Maister’s heart.

He is also on the IOC’s co-ordination commission for the 2018 Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires and a member of its Olympic Education commission. So he’s well qualified to speak on the subject of the Youth Olympics concept – and what he sees disturbs him.

He tells us: “I’ve been to all three [previous] Youth Olympic Games and fundamentally and strongly understand and believe in the philosophy of competing, sharing and learning. I’ve tried to run schools on the basis of excellence and developing the whole person. So I get it. It’s a powerful force for good and it’s what the Olympic movement was set up to do by Pierre de Coubertin. It’s a life-changing experience for the kids who come here. They’re all in awe, amazed, inspired.”

But, Maister says, he has four main “issues” with the games and a “strong belief there needs to be fundamental changes.” These issues he summarises as the games’ core purpose, their name, the qualification system, and the return on investment.

Core purpose: This remains unclear, according to Maister, who illustrates the point by quoting the head of rugby in New Zealand who, when asked why the country wasn’t sending a team to compete at the (summer) Youth Olympics in New Zealand’s national sport, said that the games are “about lots of things, but I’m not sure what they’re about.”

“We need to really nail the core purpose,” says Maister. “Now it’s too broad; you could read anything into it. Is it an elite event, a cultural event, an innovation event? When you tick too many boxes, you’re left confused about the core purpose.”

Name: Allied to the question of the core purpose of the games is the problem of how they should be identified, Maister says. Calling them the Youth Olympic Games makes them sound like they are a junior version of the Olympic Games. But, he says, “When I hear IOC staff members talk about the ‘senior Olympic Games’, I wince. It forces people to find another word for our product.”

Qualification: The Youth Olympics have embraced a qualification system based on universality, but at the same time only 1,100 athletes can participate in the games. “When you restrict numbers you get some strange anomalies where, for example, continents can only select one team,” Maister says, pointing to an example in his own sport in the summer games when one of the sport’s strongest nations sent what was, in effect, a club team, and it “got thrashed by other countries which sent their national teams. You know the best in the world are at the Olympics. You don’t know they’re at the Youth Olympics.”

Return on investment: “If the aim is to grow and encourage participation in sport all around the world, I don’t think this is the best way to do it,” says Maister. “It’s a whole life-changing experience for those who are here and for the host country, but it causes barely a ripple in the rest of the world. For what happens here it’s wonderful, but if the aim is to grow participation around the world, it has minimal effect.

“The IOC says it’s putting it out to the world in lots of ways like virtual reality, social media and YouTube, but the further away from here you are, the effect will get diminished, like ripples in a pond. In our country [New Zealand] I’m not aware anyone knows it’s on. It’s a struggle to say this is a good investment. If you were only focused on those 1,000 kids you could say there was a return on investment, but this [the IOC] is a global organisation.”

Maister’s proposed solution to these issues is to establish five continental youth Olympic festivals, a development of a successful existing concept that includes the European Youth Olympic Festival. “I would love to see five regional youth Olympic festivals,” he says. “I’ve talked to several IOC members about how you spread youth participation and involvement.

“Maybe you could do it through all the international federation age group competitions around the world but I don’t think that’s the best way because the international federations will tend to ensure their best athletes are there, because it’s a sport competition. The best way is to magnify [the event] in each region – have five of them. You’d get a better return on investment from five festivals with a common philosophy. People would be much closer to it.”


Sarah Lewis, secretary general, FIS
(international ski federation)

For Lewis, the chance to “find a nice youth-oriented programme, potentially bringing in events that are not necessarily on the main programme and that are either emerging or youth-oriented” is attractive.

She cites the new cross-country cross event as an appropriate example for Norway, the home of Nordic skiing. The event involves athletes competing head to head on a course involving elements they would not normally have to encounter on cross-country skis, such as jumps and bank turns. “We can trial it for the Olympics to some extent,” she says.

The cost to the ski federation of involvement in the Youth Olympics is “not a significant part of our budget, but it’s an important investment,” Lewis says. 

“The IOC is investing heavily: the IOC and the organising committee pay our costs. There is an investment [for the federations], there’s a lot of staff time and expense involved. The inspection programme undertaken over nearly four years is fairly significant.”

Partially echoing Maister, Lewis adds: “Perhaps one of the things that needs to be managed are the expectations. It isn’t the Olympics, and it’s not competing with the Olympics. Fifteen-year-old kids shouldn’t be lauded as the next Olympic champions.

“The Youth Olympic Games is a new event, and one thing it is achieving is an introduction to the Olympic movement and Olympic values. It should be a launching platform not a final product. It’s about bringing the Olympic movement together – NOCs, international federations, partners, organisers – on a platform to see how other aspects of sport and the games can be developed with a lower spotlight and profile – in less of a pressure cooker – so they can be more creative.”


Thierry Borra, Director, Olympic Games Management, Coca-Cola Coca-Cola, an Olympic Games sponsor for 88 years, was one of a handful of top-tier IOC ‘TOP’ partners with a presence at Lillehammer 2016. Others included Samsung, Dow Chemical and Visa.

Coca-Cola’s ‘activation’ of its sponsorship at the games included a ‘pop-up store’ selling Coca-Cola merchandise (a first for the company at such an event), supplying soft drinks at games venues and facilities and, most notably, sponsoring the torch relay ahead of the games.

Thierry Borra, a member of the IOC’s Sport and Active Society commission, is recognised as one of the most creative thinkers in the wider Olympic movement. Asked how Coca-Cola benefited from the association with the Youth Olympics – what was the return on investment – he says: 

“We’re interested in all initiatives. We’ve supported them from the beginning. As for the return on investment, we’re still in a learning phase. We’ve been involved in the [Olympic] torch relay since 1992, but at Innsbruck [the location for the first edition of the winter Youth Olympics four years ago] we found that the Olympic model didn’t really work. There’s not the same anticipation, so you can’t expect to have people lining up on the roads. The model here worked very well, with 21 celebrations [in Norway’s 19 counties]. It played a role of adding excitement to the celebration.”

However, the Youth Olympics are still not the finished article, according to Borra, who says: “We still need to fine-tune what we’re looking at. If it’s an experience for future Olympians, fantastic. If it’s about inspiring the young people of the world, we have a challenge, which we must meet with skill. It will inspire the young people of Lillehammer, maybe the region, maybe even Norway. But the world? I don’t think so. If you want to go to the youth of the world, you need a model that is more regional.”

For example, Borra said, initiatives at the Youth Olympics such as the ‘Sports Lab’, in which new sports are given a platform (in Lillehammer these included parkour and ice climbing) and ‘Try a Sport’, in which young people are given the chance to try unfamiliar Olympic sports, provided a “great experience – but how can you replicate that on a global scale? Could you have it in ski resorts, with athletes as role models?”

The Youth Olympics, Borra says, needs to answer two questions: “Are they inspiring the next generation of Olympians? Are they inspiring the youth of the world? I think the approach is different. Maybe now they’re targeting future Olympians more than the youth of the world. Maybe the future is a combination.

“There’s nothing bad with this event, it’s a great event, but it’s not enough to inspire all young people to watch the Olympics and practise sport. Even if we have media reach, it’s not enough to watch it on TV. It would be great to have an initiation of sports in a fun way in neighbourhoods. There is an Olympic day; maybe there should be an Olympic week.

We have to go back to de Coubertin’s premise of sports in society and education. “We do need to continue to inspire the next generation of Olympians, and create role models. Maybe we could create a series of experiences with the international federations. 

The notion of experiential marketing is very important here. Why not work within schools? How can you have that emotion of Olympism on a daily basis? For me the response is multi- faceted. I don’t think one event can achieve that. It’s a collaboration between the international federations, NOCs, ministries, athletes.

Asked if Coca-Cola will be a part of the planned review of the Youth Olympics concept, Borra says: “I don’t know yet. I’m sure they will involve the partners. We will share our point of view with the IOC. If a partner is there for 88 years and doesn’t have a point of view, it’s not the right partner! I truly believe that the beauty is in the exchange between different stakeholders. If not, it’s difficult to understand how we can help each other.”