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Rogge’s Youth Games reach the starting line

Annika Lenz began dreaming of competing at the Olympics when she was 8. Seven years later, she will have a chance to realize her dream in a way she never knew was possible.

Lenz’s results in a diving competition earlier this year earned the 15-year-old a spot at the first Youth Olympic Games in Singapore Aug. 14-26. The event is the first new sports competition created by the International Olympic Committee since 1924 and the first opportunity for athletes ages 14 to 18 to compete against each other on an international stage.

The Youth Olympic Games are the result of IOC President Jacques Rogge’s push to encourage youth participation in sports and foster youth interest in the Olympics for years to come. It is an unprecedented undertaking for an organization that is slow to change, and Olympic observers are watching closely to see if it will succeed.

“The Olympic brand has become a little bit older,” said Bettina Kuperman, a director at the international sports agency TSE Consulting. “This is a way the IOC can reach out to youth. The question is, how effective can they do it?”

Jacques Rogge (right) and Hellenic
Olympic Committee President
Spyros Capralos at the Youth
Olympic Games torch lighting
ceremony last month in Greece

The idea for the Youth Olympic Games grew out of Rogge’s experience creating a European Olympic festival in the late 1980s. The first European Youth Olympic Days were held in 1991 and featured young athletes from 48 European countries. He began pushing to bring the concept to the IOC in 2005.

The project faced skepticism from various corners of the Olympic movement. Some IOC members questioned if the organization needed a youth event and expressed concern that the event might be more of a burden for the IOC than a benefit. Similarly, leaders of national Olympic committees and national governing bodies expressed concerns that the event would create new costs for them and interfere with existing competitions.

Despite those concerns, the IOC approved the initiative in July 2007, and Rogge is confident it will succeed.

“We have to bring young people closer to sport,” Rogge said during an interview earlier this year. “There’s a growing inactivity of young people. That leads to obesity, a lack of physical fitness and a lack of interest in young people for sport. The Youth Games are one of the means by which we’re trying to address these things.”

U.S. diver Annika Lenz, 15, is one
of the youngsters getting a chance
to compete.

On the business front, the Youth Olympic Games give the IOC content to expand its digital media offerings and social-networking efforts and offer corporate partners a new platform to market. It also extends the Olympic experience to new markets that don’t have the capacity to stage an Olympics or organize a large, international sporting event.

Cities around the world have embraced the concept. Innsbruck, Austria, beat Kuopio, Finland, to host the 2012 Winter Youth Olympics, and Nanjing, China, bested Guadalajara, Mexico, and Poznan, Poland, to win the right to host the 2014 Summer Youth Olympic Games.

Hosting the event comes with a cost. Singapore reportedly is spending $387 million on the event, more than three times its planned cost of $122 million and 10 times the $30 million cost that Rogge predicted host cities would spend when the Youth Olympic Games were approved in 2007.

Still, advisers to bid cities insist that hosting a Youth Olympic Games is worth it.

“It’s an expensive event, but by international sports standards, it’s not that expensive,” said Kuperman, who advised Poznan on its bid. “It gives smaller, second-tier cities the chance to connect with the Olympic brand. There’s a lot of opportunity [for cities] to brand themselves because of that.”

To ease national Olympic committees’ burden from costs associated with the new event, the IOC will pay for the travel to Singapore for all participating athletes. The IOC declined to disclose the cost to its bottom line. It did say it will pay for it from its cash reserves, which exceed $460 million, and it plans to pay for future Youth Olympics from its operating cash flow. It is doing so from its financial reserves and plans to factor those costs into its operating cash flow in the future. But that doesn’t mean there are no costs for Olympic committees.

Youth Olympic Games
Location: Singapore
Dates: Aug. 14-26
No. of countries: 202
No. of athletes: 3,600
No. of U.S. athletes: 82
Age of athletes: 14-18
No. of sports: 26
Participating TOP sponsors: Acer, Atos Origin, Coca-Cola, General Electric, McDonald’s, Omega, Panasonic, Samsung and Visa

The IOC is only paying for the international flights for the 82 members of Team USA from three U.S. cities: Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco. That means the U.S. Olympic Committee has to cover the flights for athletes who have to travel to reach those cities.

Some international federations are excited about the event. Leaders at the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) believe the event will help increase participation and investment in the sport in new countries because the 3-on-3 format debuting requires fewer athletes and means 38 countries — more than twice as many as in the Olympics — will send basketball players to Singapore.

“The Youth Olympic Games will be a phenomenal platform to launch and promote the new [3-on-3] discipline,” said FIBA Secretary General Patrick Baumann.

Other sports organizations face some challenges with the new event. For example, USA Gymnastics decided not to send a female artistic gymnast because it can only send a limited number of coaches. Instead, it is sending two females, one for trampoline and one for rhythmic gymnastics, and two males, one for trampoline and one for artistic gymnastics.

“When we were presented with this conflict, we evaluated the best way we could handle it, and in the spirit of universality we felt one of our Pan American partners would benefit more by sending a female athlete,” said Steve Penny, USA Gymnastics president. “We were bound to have some challenges with a new event, but we all want to work with the IOC to develop a property with great value and meaning.”

Despite the relative newness of the event, the Youth Olympic Games has been quick to pick up marketing support from the IOC’s stable of worldwide partners. Acer, Atos Origin, Coca-Cola, General Electric, McDonald’s, Omega, Panasonic, Samsung and Visa are all activating in Singapore and parts of Southeast Asia.

While the event doesn’t have global relevancy yet, it has tremendous appeal locally in Singapore, and executives see it as a great way to bring their companies’ ties to the Olympics to a new market. Both Coke and Visa have developed special commercial spots to run during the event and are supporting local organizers with supplies and expertise during the Games.

“For us, this was a welcome addition to the Olympic sponsorship family,” said Michael Lynch, Visa’s head of global sponsorship. “It’s just another generation of athletes we hope to help along their journey.”

In the same fashion it passed through activation rights at the Youth Games to existing sponsors, the IOC also passed the broadcast rights through to its existing rights holders. NBC will show highlights from the event on Universal Sports that have been prepared by the IOC’s broadcasting arm, Olympic Broadcasting Services. The IOC will offer video-on-demand highlights on its YouTube channel, as well.

The event also serves as the IOC’s first major digital initiative. Live coverage of competition will be available online and free-of-charge at YouthOlympicGames.org.

Rogge said the key to a successful Youth Olympic Games will be organization and stakeholder happiness.

“If our stakeholders are happy, I’m a happy man,” he said.

If Lenz is any indication, then one constituency may be satisfied already. Lenz said the combination of traveling to Singapore and meeting divers from other countries makes this one of the most exciting things she’s done and encourages her to keep striving to achieve her dream of competing in a future Olympic Games.

“I would keep working hard anyway,” she said, “but this is an extra push to keep doing better.”

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