“More than I could dream” – Jacques Rogge on the Youth Olympic Games

12 Oct 2017

If Pierre de Coubertin is the father of the modern Olympic Games, former IOC President Jacques Rogge is the inspiration behind the Youth Olympic Games (YOG).

In just 10 years, the YOG have gone from a Rogge-inspired concept to a well-established fixture on the global sports calendar. They have been responsible for introducing a raft of extraordinary talent to the world (think Chad le Clos and Chloe Kim for starters), and have helped bring a range of hugely engaging events to the Olympic Games. Sports fans have a lot to thank Belgium’s former rugby international and Olympic sailor for.

“They were in my mind before I succeeded (Juan Antonio) Samaranch (IOC President, 1980-2001),” Rogge said. “It all started when I was President of the European Olympic Committees in 1991 and I created the (European) Youth Olympic Days. We had this youth event for the European NOCs, and when I had the possibility to get the support of the Olympic world for the YOG, it caught fire immediately.”

2013 / CIO / YANG, Xi

Right from the start, the motivation was multi-layered. “We always had a holistic approach,” Rogge explained. “The concept was that the YOG would be more than just an athletic competition, they would be an educational experience too. It is the best athletes in the world in their age categories. These are the future stars, and we want to give them the possibility to compete at the highest level, while at the same time to benefit from the educational programme, the fight against doping, injury prevention – things that are very useful for developing athletes to know.”

The widely praised Learn & Share programme at the Lillehammer 2016 YOG was a direct result of Rogge’s resolve. Featuring skills development, environmental awareness seminars and social responsibility classes, the YOG have continually developed this key strand over the past 10 years. Some of the very biggest names in modern sport – Usain Bolt, Lindsey Vonn and Michael Phelps among them – have supported this pillar of the YOG so strongly that they have served as athlete role models (ARMs) and Games ambassadors.

Crucially, Rogge’s intention was never to limit innovation to outside the field of play. The very first Games in Singapore in 2010 featured mixed team judo and mixed gender swimming relays, and were actually the launch platform for 3x3 basketball, a discipline that has since soared in popularity.

“They were all great successes, and it makes me very happy to see them progress to the 2020 Olympic Games,” Rogge said with a smile, as he looked ahead to all three events making their debuts in Tokyo in three years’ time.

The Singapore YOG were, in themselves, quite remarkable. “Overall, it took less than three years to organise the Games. It was pretty fast,” said the still-smiling Rogge. “I explained the project to the IOC Executive Board members, and they were very supportive. We then had an IOC Session (in 2007) where, with the exception of two votes, we had unanimous support for the project; and then I got a lot of support from Singapore, where we held the first Games. It was really quite an achievement.”

At the time, President Rogge had experienced 22 Olympic Games, three as a competitor (Rogge sailed for Belgium in the Mexico City 1968, Munich 1972 and Montreal 1976 Games) and 19 as an administrator. But all the rest faded into the background in comparison to the moment his idea became a reality. “It was more than I could dream, more than I could believe,” Rogge said of the Singapore YOG. “It was a huge success; the young people were so enthusiastic about being there. The organisation was first class and there was good public attendance.”

When asked seven years later, and with another six Games (three Youth, one Winter and two Summer) under his belt, whether Singapore was still the pinnacle of his Olympic career, the answer was emphatic. “Yes, without a doubt,” Rogge replied.

Nanjing 2014 Xinhua

The four YOG editions since Rogge’s eureka moment seven years ago have varied in size and ambition, with Nanjing 2014 in particular standing out from the crowd. Rogge makes no apologies for the significant infrastructure and investment made by the Chinese government for the YOG. “We knew that Nanjing was a one-off in that it was in fact a national organisation, not a city organisation,” Rogge said. “It was very well organised, a lot of positive things; but it is not something that can be repeated each time. There may be other Nanjings in the future, but I imagine the Games of Buenos Aires and Lausanne (2020 Winter YOG) will be organised with moderate budgets and not too heavy expenditure.” The 75-year-old plans to be at both, just to check. “If my health is ok, which is the case today, I will be there,” he said. 

It has been quite some journey since the moment on 7 July 2007 when, during the 119th IOC Session, President Rogge presented his grand youth plan to the IOC members. Three years later, during a speech at the inaugural Games in Singapore, Rogge said that he hoped the YOG would soon be “as much of an indispensable fixture as their grown-up brothers”. He is confident that moment has arrived.

“I think that will definitely be the case after Buenos Aires 2018,” Rogge said. “I think from then on they will legitimately be something you think of automatically.”

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