Teenage Kicks: The inaugural Youth Olympic Games

13 August 2010 | Posted in Features - Opinion - Blogs | By Michael Long | Contact the author

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.”

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