The Buenos Aires 2018 Youth Olympic Games began last night, but you will be forgiven for having missed the Opening Ceremony. Unlike, the Olympic Games, very few media are here in Buenos Aires and you won’t see much on your television.
On the ground, these Games feel much like any other, the venues are world class and the delivery exceptional. But they are so much more than just another sport’s event. The Youth Olympic Games give us a glimpse into the future of sport.
With its first delivery in Singapore during the summer of 2010, the Youth Olympic Games is considerably younger than the Olympic Games. Conceived by the former IOC President Dr Jacques Rogge, it occupies a unique place within the sporting calendar. For some people, the Youth Olympics represents the true spirit of the Olympic movement. There is an absence of excessive branding, a more authentic commitment to the value of taking part, compared to just the pursuit of winning, and a desire to experiment with physical activity in a way that allows it to embrace new activities.
For instance, new for this year is the sport of “Breaking” — a contemporary version of break dancing — and the aspiration to re-think sport through the introduction of new activities is written into the DNA of the Youth Olympics. In Nanjing four years ago, we saw skateboarding and climbing exhibited as demonstrations sports and they are now part of the whole Olympic programme. At the YOG, a special kind of experimentation is possible and these Games function as a test bed for new ideas.
Also new for this year is the Olympism in Action Forum, which preceded the sports event. This conference brought together such notable figures as Former Secretary General of the UN, Ban Ki Moon, and a raft of sports industry innovators, such as the Head of Intel’s esports programme. While the IOC oversees many such conferences, this event was unique for embracing dissenting voices and aspired to ensure that the IOC was listening to all perspectives on such matters as doping and even the merits of hosting the Games at all.
Everything from human rights to parkour featured in a programme designed to reflect on the place of the Olympic movement in the world today. After a decade of crisis in sports governance and a seemingly relentless stream of digital distractions that many consider to be to the detriment of sports participation, the Forum was a space to reconsider priorities for the Olympic movement.
Even the Opening Ceremony for Buenos Aires was different. Instead of the usual big stadium theatrical experience, Buenos Aires hosted a street party, open to everyone, located in the community. Speeches within the Opening Ceremony emphasised the need for sports to be more closely connected to the people and drew attention to the growth of urban sports, as a key direction in sustainable events. Even the apartments that lined the streets became part of the theatrical staging, as dancers showed onlookers how to dance a tango.
The Olympic Games began as a movement for young people and it is easy to imagine that sport reaches all young people. However, sport has never been for all. Many people are turned off by the excessive competitiveness and excessive fan culture that surrounds many modern sports. The Youth Olympic Games may be an antidote to this and this is why it’s worth tuning in to what’s happening in Buenos Aires.
There is something very exciting about witnessing the next generation of Olympians prove themselves in this supportive environment, where a commitment to education, culture, and cooperation are key aspects of their programme. The YOG feels closer to the vision of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who founded the modern Olympic movement over 100 years ago.
There is also a sense that the Olympic family may even prefer these Games to the adult versions, where so much more is at stake politically and economically. While the host city staging and competition requirements demand that the YOG is delivered to an international standard, one could quite imagine races being run in much more informal settings and that this would not be to the detriment of the Olympic spirit.
Time will tell whether the YOG is able to push sports into a new era, but there is certainly an energy and enthusiasm for innovation among the organizers in Buenos Aires. You can even watch it on the IOC’s own tv channel, itself an indication of where the Games may be headed in terms of future viewing.
In one of the closing plenaries of the Olympism in Action Forum, the future of sport was characterised by esports, virtual reality, and drone racing and we have seen each of these new forms of activity grow in the last two years around sports. It may not be for everyone, but it speaks of a desire to embrace change, a recognition that technology is a crucial part of modern sports events, and a clear acknowledgement of the centrality of digital technology within our lives. We may have thought sport was figured out as a cultural practice, but that is all about to change and the evidence of this is found within the Youth Olympic Games.