Innsbruck is ready for YOG!

With excitement growing in Innsbruck as the city prepares to host the first ever Winter Youth Olympic Games, Christoph Geiler looks at what awaits the young athletes when they arrive in Austria.

A Medal Plaza close to a famous historical landmark

Innsbruck’s Golden Roof is undoubtedly the city’s most famous landmark. Every year thousands of tourists visit the Tyrolean capital just to see the 2,657 gilded tiles that adorn the 15th-century balcony in the heart of the city, but for the last few months there has been a new landmark competing for their attention. Within sight of the Golden Roof, in the middle of the bustling Maria-Theresien-Strasse, lies the huge Youth Olympic Countdown Clock, which displays exactly how long is left until Innsbruck plays host to the first ever Winter Youth Olympic Games (YOG), which follow the inaugural Summer YOG in Singapore in 2010.

“We went to Singapore for the first Youth Olympic Games not knowing if the experiment would be a successful one; it was the first trial,” explains IOC President Jacques Rogge. “But Singapore was a great success. The athletes were absolutely thrilled. They loved it.”

An important event in Olympic and sporting history

The Winter YOG, which will take place from 13 to 22 January 2012, will mark an important event in Olympic and sporting history. Not only will these be the first ever Winter Games for young people, they will also signal the first time that the Olympic flame has been lit in the same city on three separate occasions. Having hosted the Olympic Winter Games in 1964 and 1976, Innsbruck is a fitting host for the inaugural Winter YOG.

“It is a great honour,” says Innsbruck 2012 CEO Peter Bayer, “and also a fantastic challenge. This opportunity is a great motivation for us all to do our best. It is great to see how passionate our young team is about the Youth Olympic Games and how they are working hard to organise the perfect Games.”

Yoggl, the star of the Youth Olympic Games

A mixture of excitement and anticipation dominates the atmosphere in Innsbruck, as the Opening Ceremony draws nearer. Signs heralding the event are on display throughout the city and everywhere you look Yoggl, the official mascot, smiles down from posters promoting the Games.

A prominent delegation representing Innsbruck 2012 has also been present at several major events to help spread the word of the Winter YOG. More than 1,000 young athletes – aged between 15 and 18 – from over 65 countries will take part in the Games over 10 days in January, when they will compete for medals in 15 disciplines across seven sports.

YOG: It's more than sport

A place on the podium is not the sole focus, however. The Winter YOG will be an opportunity for cultural exchange between young people from all over the world. To facilitate this, a unique mix of sporting and cultural activities has been integrated into the programme.

Disciplines specially adapted for the Winter YOG

Competitions will take place in all seven sports that feature on the Olympic Winter Games programme. Several of the disciplines have been specially adapted for the Winter YOG, with exciting new formats and team competitions, including mixed gender events and those in which athletes from different National Olympic Committees compete alongside each other on the same team. Other events, such as the ice hockey skills challenge and the speed skating mass start have also been developed especially for the Winter YOG. These new disciplines distinguish the Winter YOG from other sports events and help foster the Olympic values in the young athletes, while also encouraging team spirit and cultural exchange. The Winter YOG will also see Olympic medals awarded in women’s ski jumping for the first time, while snowboard slopestyle and ski halfpipe will also make their Olympic debuts.

The 1964 and 1976 venues revisited

All the Olympic competitions will take place at venues that hosted events during the 1964 and 1976 Winter Games. The Seefeld region, which will host the Nordic competitions, and the Patscherkofel mountain, which will stage the Alpine skiing events, are already renowned as the scenes of memorable Olympic moments, including Franz Klammer’s downhill victory at the 1976 Winter Games, which is regarded as one of the greatest Austrian sporting moments of all time.

The Games themselves will kick off with an elaborate 90-minute Opening Ceremony at Innsbruck’s Bergisel Stadium. The city’s Olympic history will be the main focus of the ceremony, which will be attended by 13,000 eager Olympic fans and will feature the lighting of the Olympic cauldron. The Closing Ceremony, on 22 January, will be a smaller affair held in the city centre, at the Medal Plaza on Maria-Theresien-Strasse, where the medal presentations will also take place during the Games.

The Culture and Education Programme

In line with the goals of the YOG, a Culture and Education Programme (CEP) will be held alongside the sporting programme, with a comprehensive range of activities awaiting the athletes in Innsbruck. Under the slogan “Everyone can be part of it”, the CEP will incorporate topics such as the Olympic Values, Healthy Lifestyle, Social Responsibility, Expression and Skills Development.

“It gives us the opportunity to give the young athletes the tools that they need for life later on,” explains Rogge. “We have young athletes between the ages of 15 to 18. There is a sporting aspect because they are the best ones from their age category – there is a very high level of competition. But next to that is a wonderful part made of cultural and educational experiences which is very important.” Through seminars and information brochures on nutrition and anti-doping, the focus will be placed on helping young people lead healthy lives. Topics such as environmental protection, conscious use of resources, the exchange of ideas and the spreading of Olympic values via new media, as well as the development of professional career planning, will all be part of the programme, too.

“We want to help them be better citizens in later life,” says Rogge. “We teach them how to lead a healthy lifestyle, how to interact with the media, we teach them about social values, such as respect of the environment and about the prevention of transmittable diseases, and injuries. All these kinds of values that are important not only for their lives as athletes, but for their lives as a whole.”

Young Ambassadors to encourage young athletes

Young Ambassadors, selected by the National Olympic Committees, will encourage athletes to take part in the activities and help educate them about the Olympic values. Athlete Role Models will also play a key role in Innsbruck. These prominent athletes – among them many former Olympic champions – will advise young people during the Games and serve as positive role models. In a special lounge inside the Youth Olympic Village, young athletes will have the opportunity to talk with their sporting heroes, such as Samppa Lajunen, triple world champion in Nordic combined, and Canadian speed skating legend Jeremy Wotherspoon.

After the successful debut in Singapore in 2010, the concept of the Young Reporter Programme will continue in Innsbruck. Young journalists, cameramen, photographers and moderators will gain experience in the course of this major sporting event. They will report on the Games under the guidance of experienced media representatives.

Members of the general public are also being encouraged to get involved in the CEP activities and organisers have helped engage them in the build-up to the Games through initiatives such as the mascot design competition. This international contest to find a mascot for the Games was won by Florencia Demaria and Luis Andrés Abbiati from Argentina, who prevailed with their design of a cartoon chamois. Named ‘Yoggl’ – a classic Tyrolean nickname – the mascot has also been helping to engage the public through an online competition that has seen people taking photos of a Yoggl cut-out in locations around the world while on their summer holidays.

More than 1.400 volunteers

Members of the public have also been encouraged to sign up as volunteers for the Games. So far over 1,400 helpers have applied, with some already assisting the organising committee in the build up to the Games. Among these volunteers are people who were part of the Olympic Winter Games 35 years ago, while others come from neighbouring countries. In another move to engage the public, all events, whether ticketed or not, will be free. “I hope that the whole city will participate and be excited and celebrate with the athletes,” says Bayer. “The locals, especially young people, should experience the Games first hand. It is a unique opportunity to have such a high-class sports event right outside your door and this is the reason we decided not to charge entrance fees for the competitions. We want to ensure that the events will be well attended and everybody is able to be part of the Games.”

The Torch has visited all Austria!

A traditional torch relay has also taken place in the lead-up to the Games, which helped raise excitement levels even further, with exactly 2012 people carrying the Youth Olympic torch to Innsbruck. The Youth Olympic flame has been lit on 17 December in Athens, Greece, before the official torch relay started in Innsbruck ten days later. There were 65 stages planned and the Youth Olympic flame will cover a total distance of 3,573 kilometres on the way to the official Opening Ceremony on 13 January in the Bergisel Stadium, marking the start of the first Winter Youth Olympic Games.

“I have goose bumps right now just thinking about the Opening Ceremony at the Bergisel Stadium and imagining the Youth Olympic flame being lit,” adds Bayer. “I am sure this will be a very intense, emotional experience.”