Teenage Kicks: The inaugural Youth Olympic Games

The Singapore Youth Olympic Games begin this weekend. The competition's organisers believe that, over the past two years, they have ensured that it will be a new highlight for both the country and the Olympic movement.

Teenage Kicks: The inaugural Youth Olympic Games

Ng Ser Miang, chairman of the Singapore Youth Olympic Committee, displays the Youth Olympic flame as it arrives in the city-state, ahead of the opening ceremony for the inaugural Games on Saturday 14th August.

The Singapore Youth Olympic Games begin this weekend. The competition's organisers believe that, over the past two years, they have ensured that it will be a new highlight for both the country and the Olympic movement.

If anyone has any doubt about the importance of the Youth Olympic Games to the International Olympic Committee, they should know that Goh Kee Nguan, the chief executive of the inaugural edition, openly describes the competition as Jacques Rogge’s baby. In February 2008, after a postal vote from the IOC’s 105 members, Rogge announced that Singapore had seen off the challenges of Athens, Bangkok, Moscow and Turin to host the first Youth Olympics. Although it seems a long time ago now, Goh points out that when the Games begin on Saturday his team will have had just over two years to prepare, compared to the seven years an Olympic host can normally spend completing its facilities and preparations.

Part of the reason for that shorter timeframe – though it should be noted that Innsbruck and Nanjing will have significantly longer to plan the 2012 winter and 2014 summer editions respectively – is that the IOC is seemingly determined to prove large-scale events can be held at a reasonable and sustainable cost. And the Youth Olympics are, unquestionably, a large-scale event; Singapore will host the cream of the teenage crop from more than 170 National Olympic Committees expected to send their best 14-18 year old athletes to the Games. The IOC will fund travel, room and board for all athletes and judges, at a predicted cost of some US$11 million. Still, its original estimate of a US$30 million cost to host the summer Games was blown out of the water during the bidding process, when Singapore’s bid team presented a final budget of US$75 million, more than double the IOC’s estimate but less than half Moscow’s US$175 million proposal. Singapore’s bid, though, knew that it could count on both government and corporate support, and the IOC was convinced. A sponsorship target of S$50 million (US$36 million) was set and deemed eminently achievable. 550 companies publicly backed Singapore's bid. Then the bottom fell out of the world economy.

"I've told many Singaporean companies that the Youth Olympic Games are a great opportunity for them to get into the sports industry - and to get into the Olympic industry."

“I will say that it was a challenging time,” admits Goh frankly, speaking in March. “But I think with the economic crisis that came along, what we did was to change our approach somewhat; instead of just asking for cash, we looked for value in kind, relevant to help us relieve the budget.” As a result of that quick strategy shift, Goh insists, the Singapore Youth Olympic Games Organising Committee (Syocog), easily reached its sponsorship target, although, as he acknowledges with a laugh, “it’s never enough. So we continue to work to get more sponsorship, as I say not so much in terms of getting the revenue, but more important is the social, giving more companies the opportunity to come on this journey.”

Anyone who has experienced the build-up to an Olympic Games will know that the people around it can tend to get sucked into the romanticism of the event, and talk of sponsors being given the opportunity to come on a journey is often a sure sign of that – unless, perhaps, it is a nice way of making them feel better about handing over their money. More than any other Games, though, with the possible exception of Sochi 2014’s grand designs and the commercial opportunities presented by them to its partners, Singapore’s organisers really can point to a once in a lifetime opportunity for their backers. “I’ve told many Singaporean companies that besides for the national service, the giving back to the nation, the Youth Olympic Games are a great opportunity for them to get into the sports industry - and to get into the Olympic industry,” says Goh. “Otherwise it’s going to be very difficult.”

Teo Ser Luck, the Senior Parliamentary Secretary of Singapore’s Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports and the government adviser to Syocog, takes up the theme. “We will never be able to organise a standard Olympic Games, neither will we be able to do a winter Olympic Games,” he says. “We can’t do anything that is close, organise anything that is close to the Olympics or Olympics-related except the Youth Olympic Games, and so this is something that will happen probably once in a few generations for Singaporeans, because our island is small. I think that leaves a major legacy and that itself is a major breakthrough for us.”

Legacy is another Olympic buzzword, but more attention will be paid to it in the aftermath of the Youth Olympic Games than most other tournaments bearing the IOC’s five rings. In Singapore, while the Games themselves are eagerly anticipated, they form just part of a complete overhaul of the country’s sporting infrastructure and, in perhaps an even more daunting challenge, its sporting culture. “The Youth Olympic Games will impact Singapore on many fronts, and I think most importantly, Singapore has always been known as an economically driven city, high in achievement in economics, but in sports we are not really that known,” accepts Teo, with an honesty shared by most of his peers in the country’s sports industry. “We are not really seen as a sporting nation yet. We want to be a sporting nation. We want to be seen also as a sporting hub, and we believe that it cannot be just hardware - although we’re going to build a sports hub that costs us nearly two billion dollars to build in a couple of years - it has to come with the software: the development of a sporting culture. And the Youth Olympic Games is all-important.” There are two major elements to that, Teo continues, with one eye on making Singapore a key industry location and another on increasing the country’s own sporting pedigree. “It makes sense economically by positioning Singapore worldwide, putting us on a sporting map, as well as positioning Singapore as a global city, a very exciting city, that has hosted a multi-sports games associated closely with the Olympics. That really positions us very well, sports wise. Secondly it’s social investment, we look at the Youth Olympic Games as a major social investment, because this Games will actually leave a legacy behind for our public in general.”

For Goh, the latter objective is by far the most important. “I think that for Singapore, in terms of sports and physical education in schools, students have been involved in one way or another, but what we hope to do is make it so there’s a lot more self-initiative to play more sports,” he says. “Singapore’s youth are involved in some sports, but I think we want them to have a lot more self-initiative, and learn sports, you know, because of their love, and not because their parents tell them to. So we hope that there is more of a passion for sports, but also to play different sports. The Youth Olympic sports, not all of them are very well-known in Singapore. We hope that after the Youth Olympic Games there’s going to be a lot more support for the other sports, and participation in the other sports. We have a lot of good sports facilities here in Singapore, from swimming pools to sports stadiums, and we hope that they will be utilised to the fullest.”

“Singapore is very small, so we know that every time that something happens in Singapore our neighbours will also get benefit from the events. We work very closely with our neighbours in the Asean region

That, adds Teo, will allow the country to begin dreaming of competing at the top level of sport, be it on the pitch, in the field, on the track or in the pool. “I’ve seen the chain effect that’s happening in the sports sector in Singapore,” he insists. “One of the first things I saw was suddenly all the whole sports sector is so focused on building the youth pipeline in sport. Young children playing sports, many aspire to represent Singapore, and they are all very young. Parents begin to see that their children come in all different forms, shapes and sizes, might have a talent for sport, a hidden talent. Everybody is focusing so much and moving towards that direction. So suddenly there is a high participation rate and a mass base of youth, and then as well they establish a process where the youth pipeline is formed where it fits into the performance area for sport.”

Nor are the ambitions of Singapore’s government restricted to its own borders. “It goes the same for the regional countries as well, because they would all suddenly have to [develop a similar youth pipeline], you know, because the Youth Olympic Games is so near to them,” says Teo. “They are already having a spillover effect, to have to come up with junior athletes and to focus on their sports development pipeline. And other than that, their volunteer network is also participating in helping us organise the Youth Olympic Games, so Singapore’s Youth Olympic Games is not just Singapore’s own, it’s a Games that is really a cooperation between the Asean countries and the region, and showcasing it to the world. So there is a lot of spillover effect in that sense, and we involve our neighbours as best we can, and as much as possible.” To Goh, the man responsible for delivering a successful Games, that involvement is key. “Singapore is very small, so we know that every time that something happens in Singapore our neighbours will also get benefit from the events. We work very closely with our neighbours in the Asean region, so we hope that whatever happens in Singapore – with Singapore being an air-hub for example, people are transiting through Singapore to different parts of the region - it’s the same thing with sports too. For example, with the Youth Olympic Games coming to Singapore, we know the NOCs are already planning to come to this region early. Some of them are going to Malaysia to get acclimatised before coming to Singapore, so again we’re finding that our neighbours can benefit from that. It’s not just economically, it’s also the exposure.”

That last word – exposure – has shaped every element of the build-up to the Games. Goh insists it is more important than revenue both in terms of sponsorship and broadcasting. As if to emphasise his point with regards to the latter, the IOC has awarded broadcast rights to the Games free of charge to those broadcasters who screen the senior Olympic Games and were willing to guarantee a certain amount of airtime.

Exposure has, though, been about more than guaranteeing a set number of hours of coverage. For a Games that will feature famous athletes – a number of senior Olympic champions fall into the 14-18 years old age bracket – alongside complete unknowns, Goh and his team have had to consider their media strategy carefully. The Syocog chief executive insists his team want to capitalise on the presence of the big names, but will also look to raise the profile of the up-and-coming athletes, and believes that telling the stories of the lesser known youngsters will actually draw in viewers, working on the age-old truth that personal stories of triumph, despair and overcoming adversity to reach the world stage entrance Olympic viewers every bit as much as the sporting action. A key part of the media campaign will be using new media to connect with the younger members of the viewing public; now an important part of any successful media campaign, Goh believes maximising the use of social media, virals and apps is crucial for a competition built around youth. “If you don’t go to new media you’re going to lose them,” he insists. “You’re not even going to get them in. It’s a lot more important for the youth because it’s something that they do every day, and they’re so good at multitasking, doing many things at the same time, that if you don’t use it, first they won’t come in, and even if they do come in they get bored so easily, you’re going to lose them.” He also insists that, while he hopes the Youth Olympic Games will raise the profile of its competitors, it is not just a tool to help them garner worldwide recognition and attract sponsors and endorsement contracts as a result. “We really hope that it will be a lot more than just that. I think we are hoping that the Youth Olympic Games will besides giving the young athletes a chance to show their capabilities and their prowess, we are hoping that the Youth Olympic Games will be one where people change mindsets. And it’s not just for youth here, but it’s really for the youth of the world and the people of the world.”

In the spirit of that declaration, an extensive cultural and education programme has been put in place for both the visiting athletes, the youth of Singapore and, should they wish to connect, the wider global audience. In the build-up to the Games, for example, over a 12-day period, the athletes will participate in more than 50 interactive sessions and activities based around five educational themes: Olympism; Skills Development; Well-Being and Healthy Lifestyle; Social Responsibility; and Expression. They will meet Olympic champions and political leaders, take part in musical performances and dance acts and undertake team-building activities. It makes for a far from normal build-up to a sporting event, even in the Olympic movement and has been a key element of the Games since their conception.

“Working with the IOC, when we co-constructed this new product, I was quite clear to ask them what thing we wanted to do a lot more,” says Goh. “And so the culture and education programme was really brought in on a balanced basis, to make sure we integrate it well with the sports and training, to make sure that the athletes, while they are performing to their best in the competition, that we can also introduce certain other activities where they could actually experience friendship, interact with each other, share about where they come from, who they are, their country.” That sharing will not just be amongst the athletes, but with the children of their host country. “The initial point came from the IOC, that there should be a culture element to this, but the form of the culture element is more from Singapore,” Goh adds. “I think for most people, you see culture as the culture of your country, your telly, maybe your traditional dance and all that. We saw the culture and education programme as something very different, that is really made for the athletes and is not just culture and education about my country, but really is global exposure. So one example is that in the athletes’ village, we’re going to set up booths of every country, so you’re going to have a mini-world in the village. They’re all going to be set up by Singapore students as part of their programme around the YOG, their interpretation of the countries that they know. We want the athletes to say ‘Hmm, actually, my country…hmmm…’” – Goh breaks off laughing before continuing – “We think there’ll be a good interaction because this is the Singapore students’ interpretation of your country. What do you think about your country, and what are people saying about your country? And we are hoping that then, after clarifying this, they have a partnership to try to sell that country to each of the other athletes, so the athletes will have the chance to learn about each of the other countries. So the global exposure is something very different, so our version of the culture and education programme was very different, and I would say that this is the first time it’s been developed this way. It’s a unique Singaporean product, that will ultimately become a YOG product, that will be sent to the rest of the world.”

Nor will the cultural programme be restricted to the next 12 days. “We have got a very good partnership with the Ministry of Education, for our own youth in all the schools, including the international schools, in Singapore, for them to learn about Olympic values, Olympic history, and also to play more sports. And this has started more than a year ago and we’ve found that the students at the schools are very enthusiastic, organising Olympic-related events. A very good example was a teacher doing letter writing, and she said ‘Why don’t you write a letter to all of the NOCs asking for one of their pins?’ and then she sent the best letters to the NOCs asking for their pins, and when the NOCs responded she put the pins up on the board. She received 60 or 80 pins, and pinned them on the board. So the students actually have some relevance, they’re using YOG as a platform to do things they otherwise wouldn’t do.” Such is Goh’s enthusiasm for the cultural programme, it would almost be easy to forget that we are discussing a sporting event, but he says Syocog and their partners have not lost focus: “It is first about sports,” he insists. “It’s first about sports excellence, the top athletes coming here to perform to their best.”

Should the Games be as successful as those involved in their organising expect, they will be a major financial boon to Singapore, despite the original investment. “The economic impact and all that, as you can see we look at it more as a social investment, but we know that the economic impact will always be there,” says Teo. “The officials, the families of the athletes, the athletes will all be here, and at the same time there will be tourists coming in just for the Youth Olympic Games and the excitement of soaking in the atmosphere. So we expect tourism to increase and a lot more attraction to Singapore when the Youth Olympic Games are held.” Of course, creating that level of excitement will not be left to chance, but is another key objective for the organisers. “I think the Youth Olympic Games build-up, if let’s say it’s only the organising committee and the government that’s excited and the public’s not excited, then I think that we would have failed,” admits Teo. “We can consider that as half the objective achieved only. It’s important to build up the excitement now with the awareness, not just in Singapore but around the region and even in the world to support these Games.”

One final challenge, as with any inaugural event, has been finding the correct level for ticket prices. “The tickets are priced at a very reasonable rate, definitely affordable, for people in Singapore as well as our friends coming from overseas,” says Goh. “Very, very reasonable. Definitely much cheaper than the senior Games, even for the opening ceremony. But we also do not want to make them so low that it cheapens the Games. So I would say it’s fairly reasonable and very affordable. The seating capacity is not as large as at other Games, so we think tickets will be sold out quickly. It’s a good problem,” he adds with another laugh. “Much better than the other way around.” Not that the people in the stadiums are the only ones Goh hopes to have enthralled: “We hope that it’s not just a Games for the people who are coming, but one where the people of the world will see that this is a very important event for the youth, an event where you see the youth taking initiative, taking ownership, and the rest of the world are supporting them, in the right way, to make sure that they succeed in doing what they want,” he concludes.

“People always say that the youth are our future. But I see the youth not just as our future, but our now. Our present. It’s important that we continue to give them opportunity.”