Young Norwegians shaking up sport post-Lillehammer 2016

From national-level board members to volunteer coaches at local sports clubs, many of the 230 participants in the Young Leaders programme at the Lillehammer 2016 Winter Youth Olympic Games are now making their mark on sport in Norway.

Picture by NIF

The Norwgeian NOC’s youth advisor, Kathrine Godager, reflects on a heartening 12 months, the lasting legacy of the Games and her hopes for the future.

 “There has been a real change. Young people are much more visible. Sport is more aware of them, they are listened to in a different way,” Kathrine Godager, advisor for youth sport at the Norwegian Olympic Committee (NIF), said almost a year to the day after the closing of the Lillehammer 2016 Youth Olympic Games.

There has been a real change. Young people are much more visible. Kathrine Godager - Kathrine Godager

From top to bottom the landscape of Norwegian sport has been altered, with the Games a vital staging post.  In 2011 Godager and her colleagues launched The Youth Strategy, an 11-year programme aimed at reversing a dispiriting national trend of 40-50% of 14-15 year old Norwegians dropping out of sport altogether. After a difficult first two years, during which Norway’s national federations (NFs) found it hard to move away from the long-established practice of focusing on talent only, the significance of Lillehammer 2016 loomed ever larger.

“It (the Youth Olympic Games) wasn’t a goal in the Strategy, but it was an important milestone and we thought we could use the Games to activate young leaders, potential young coaches and volunteers,” said Godager.

The Organising Committee for the Games made a legacy commitment to the NIF. The goal of engaging youth in all levels of sport was an easy sell, which is why, as Godager puts it “the results have been so good”.

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A total of 230 15-to-21-year-olds representing all 19 regions in Norway signed on for the Lillehammer 2016 Young Leaders programme, an initiative adapted from an NIF blueprint. Crucially, the Games were just a stepping stone, albeit a large and wondrous one.

“When they signed up they had to make an agreement with their local sports club that they would have some responsibility there and after the Games they would go back,” Godager explained. They couldn’t be a part of the programme if they didn’t continue their volunteer work.”

The concept has borne fruit.

“Many of them are board members (of their local clubs and regional sports administration boards). If someone quits sport they ask why. They feel their major task is to say that youth sport is for everyone, not just for people who want to compete,” said Godager.

The Norwegian is delighted to report that the change is trickling throughout sport in her country.

 “Young people are the most important members of sports organisations. We have to have positions where young people can tell others what they want.”

Her own organisation has led the way, introducing two young representatives to its board. The simple proliferation of young people throughout the process of organising, staging and creating a legacy for the Youth Olympics helped confirm this change of perspective.

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“It was all driven by young people. They were everywhere, presenting on TV, with the Prime Minister, the King. It made the Norwegian sports administrators think about them in a new way,” said Godager. “The environment in the NFs regarding young people as volunteers, leaders and athletes who will not be professionals is completely different now to what it was six years ago.”

Not that maintaining momentum in the 12 months since the Games has always been easy. Godager is tickled by one particular challenge.

“They (young leaders) are saying that being part of such a big event as one of their first volunteer jobs has made volunteering afterwards a little bit boring,” laughed Godager. “I did try to tell them beforehand that most people are volunteers for 20, 30, 40 years and then maybe they get to be part of an Olympic event but you guys started with an Olympic event so now you owe the sporting world, it’s payback.”

It is Godager’s job to ensure that the 2016 YOG were not just a glorious, momentary high. While they have undoubtedly made her life easier – “so many more people understand what we are trying to do and why it is important” – she foresees at least another five years of hard grind ahead, constantly pushing youth sport to the top of the agenda until its interests become second nature to all. One outcome the Norwegian cannot wait for is the day her proteges become her colleagues.

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“To see that change in young people was quite fantastic, it is an amazing group. I am pretty sure I will see a lot of them in sports administration in the years to come,” Godager said.