Mike Rowbottom @ITG

Two years later than originally planned, Sarajevo and East Sarajevo are playing host to the Winter European Youth Olympic Festival (EYOF), which got underway today and is due to run until Friday (February 15).

It is another significant step forward for the city that hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics before undergoing the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare during the Bosnian War which followed the break-up of Yugoslavia.

For 1,425 days, from April 1992 to February 1996, the city was surrounded and shelled by Serbian forces, during which time more than 11,000 citizens were killed and many key buildings were damaged and destroyed.

The ice arena for the 1984 Games, Olympic Hall Zetra, was used during the war as a temporary hospital and, later, for housing NATO troops.

There is ongoing post-war reconstruction in the city. Olympic Hall Zetra, in which Britain's Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean won gold in the Olympic ice dance, was among the buildings badly damaged and was rebuilt in 1999 and renamed Olympic Hall Juan Antonio Samaranch, after the former President of the International Olympic Committee.

To mark the 30th anniversary of that iconic victory the British pair returned to Sarajevo in 2014 to perform their Bolero routine at the same site in an emotional performance that was witnessed by a sell-out audience of 5,000.

The event tied in to Sarajevo's nomination that year as European Capital of Culture.

The British pair - who wore purple outfits, just as they had in their final on Valentine's Day 30 years ago - had taken up the invitation offered to them by the Mayor of the Bosnian capital, and also the Mayor of East Sarajevo, to mark the anniversary of their triumph with a display to help raise funds for Sarajevo's hosting of the 2017 European Youth Olympic Winter Festival.

Britain's 1984 Olympic ice dance champions Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean returned to the restored arena in which they had triumphed in Sarajevo to mark the 30th anniversary of those Games ©Getty Images
Britain's 1984 Olympic ice dance champions Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean returned to the restored arena in which they had triumphed in Sarajevo to mark the 30th anniversary of those Games ©Getty Images

As things turned out, preparations for that event could not be completed in time and the Turkish venue of Erzurum, scheduled to host the 2019 version, switched dates, taking advantage of facilities already in place following its hosting of the 2011 Winter Universiade.

But now Sarajevo and East Sarajevo are in a position to deliver an event that will involve athletes from 46 of the 50 European National Olympic Committees.

Jozef Liba, chair of the European Olympic Committees (EOC) Coordination Committee and secretary general of the Slovenian Olympic Committee, reflected this week on the return of the "Flame of Peace" to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

"A moment for these cities, for the first time a Torch lit for two host cities, and this is a historic moment for Sarajevo and Eastern Sarajevo because the flame of peace returns back to this beautiful city after 1984," Liba said.

Alpine skiing, biathlon, cross-country skiing and figure skating are being held at the EYOF, along with ice hockey, short track speed skating, snowboarding and curling.

One of the major strands involved in this event, from the point of view of the organising body, the EOC, is the benefit it can provide the host city.

"Hosting a European Youth Olympic Festival is a great opportunity for a city to play a leading role as a European sports city, and to focus on young people," says the EOC.

"Key legacies in sport and social development can be accompanied by improvements in the sports infrastructure sector.

"Increased direct and indirect spending also brings benefits and career opportunities are not limited to athletes. 

"Organisers and volunteers gain valuable professional experience."

Other benefits cited include sporting legacies, including facilities, and the stimulation of tourism.

Members of the Bosnian team pose with the European Olympic Committees flag in Sarajevo ©Getty Images
Members of the Bosnian team pose with the European Olympic Committees flag in Sarajevo ©Getty Images  

In 2009, the travel guide series Lonely Planet named Sarajevo as one of the top 10 cities to visit.

The main strand of such events, however, is that of involving the athletes themselves.

According to the official EYOF website: "After a first experience during the great multi-sport competition of the EYOF, many athletes then participated in the European Games and the Olympic Games."

Eva-Maria Brem was one of the earlier success stories for the winter version of the EYOF. After winning the girls' giant slalom gold at the 2005 event in the Swiss resort of Monthey, she established herself as a key member of the Austrian World Cup Alpine ski racing team.

Brem, who was born in Schwarz in Tyrol, made her World Cup debut later in 2005 at the age of 17 as she took part in a slalom race in Lienz.

She went on to represent Austria at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, finishing seventh in the giant slalom.

Brem attained her first two World Cup podiums in March 2014 and her first World Cup victory came that November, all in the giant slalom.

In 2015, she won the gold medal with Austria in the team event at the International Ski Federation Alpine World Championships held in Beaver Creek.

At that same EYOF gathering in Monthey another skier, Mauro Caviezel of Switzerland, served notice of his own huge potential as he won the bronze medal in the boys' super-G event.

Cavaziel maintained momentum in the senior ranks, representing his country in two Winter Olympics and two World Championships, winning a world bronze medal in the combined event at St Moritz in 2017.

He also tied for third place in the super-G at the 2017 World Cup finals, and has since reached World Cup podiums on three occasions.

The Monthey gathering proved to be a good vintage in terms of athletes who went on to establish themselves at senior level.

In biathlon the boys' sprint and individual golds were won by Russia's Anton Shipulin, winner of bronze and gold medals in the team events at the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics respectively.

In cross-country skiing Denise Herrman of Germany won the girls' 7.5 kilometres freestyle event and went on to take bronze in the relay at Sochi 2014.

In snowboarding, girls' halfpipe gold medallist Sophie Rodriguez of France would earn bronze at the 2013 World Championships, while her fellow countryman Tony Ramoin, bronze medallist in the boys' snowboard cross, would take bronze at Vancouver 2010.

Four years later the 2009 Winter EYOF in Upper Silesia in Poland saw Mathieu Faivre of France win the boys' giant slalom gold. He would go on to compete in two Winter Olympics and win world gold in the team event in 2017.

Gold in the parallel giant slalom snowboarding event at the 2011 Winter European Youth Olympic Festival in her native Czech Republic sent Ester Ledecká on her way to a historic Olympic double victory at Pyeongchang 2018 ©Getty Images
Gold in the parallel giant slalom snowboarding event at the 2011 Winter European Youth Olympic Festival in her native Czech Republic sent Ester Ledecká on her way to a historic Olympic double victory at Pyeongchang 2018 ©Getty Images

But the Winter EYOF of 2011, at Liberec in the Czech Republic, was arguably the richest in terms of talent that would make an impact at higher levels.

Norway's Henrik Kristoffersen, winner of the boys' giant slalom and slalom, made his World Cup debut the following year and attained his first podium finish in 2013.

At Sochi 2014, aged 19, Kristoffersen won a bronze in the slalom to become the youngest male medallist in Olympic Alpine skiing history. In 2016 he became the first to win the three classic slalom races in Adelboden, Wengen and Kitzbühel in the same season.

He won the World Cup slalom event in 2016, becoming the first racer since Alberto Tomba in 1992 to win six slalom races during a single season. At last year's Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, he won the silver medal in the giant slalom.

Another outstanding male competitor emerged at the Liberec Festival in biathlon. Kristoffersen’s compatriot Johannes Thingnes Bø, who won the boys' 7.5km sprint and took silver in the 12.5km individual event, has since earned three world titles, and became individual champion at Pyeongchang 2018, as well as winning silver medals in the men's and mixed relay events.

Laura Dahlmeier of Germany won the 10km individual and 6km sprint event in girls' biathlon. Six years later she would amass a record five gold medals at 2017 World Championships - with silver in the sprint being her only "miss". Having competed at Sochi 2014, she returned to Olympic competition at Pyeongchang 2018, winning sprint and pursuit gold, and bronze in the individual event.

Liberec was also marked by victory in the girls’ snowboard parallel giant slalom by home athlete Ester Ledecká. She created Olympic history in Pyeongchang last year by becoming the first athlete to win gold medals at the same Winter Olympics using different types of equipment as she unexpectedly won the super-G followed by the parallel giant slalom in snowboarding.

What can also be said about this biennial youth gathering, and indeed for every other international sporting event involving this age group, is that for every Kristoffersen and Ledecká there are many others who do not go on to have significant careers at senior level.

It is an interesting area this. Of course, outstanding champions are just that because they are superior to their peers. And it is equally true that, for many young people, other interests and obligations arrive in their adult life that take priority over the pursuit of sporting excellence.

That said, the inaugural 2010 Summer Youth Olympic Games in Singapore presented a similar picture. In athletics, Ethiopia's Mohammed Aman won the boys' 1,000 metres race and went on to have some stellar years, earning world indoor 800m titles in 2012 and 2014 either side of winning the world outdoor title at Moscow in 2013. He has not won any global medals since, however, in a career that has been undermined by injuries.

Luguelin Santos of the Dominican Republic, winner of the 400m, would go on to earn an Olympic silver medal at London 2012 and took bronze at the following year's World Championships, but has not since claimed any other global medals.

Silver medallist in the boys' pole vault, Thiago Braz da Silva, went on to take gold on home soil at Rio 2016, although that has been his only senior global medal so far.

The Russian winner of the girls' high jump, Maria Kuchina, went on to share the world senior indoor title in 2014 and won the outdoor version in 2015, retaining the latter in 2017 under her married name of Lasitskene. She remains the dominant force in her event.

Jamaica's Usain Bolt en-route to the 2002 world junior 200m title in his home city of Kingston - at the age of 15 ©Getty Images
Jamaica's Usain Bolt en-route to the 2002 world junior 200m title in his home city of Kingston - at the age of 15 ©Getty Images  

But the large majority of medallists have not gone on to establish themselves significantly at senior level. The same broad characteristics obtain across numerous sports. Singapore 2010 Youth Olympic winners Chad le Clos in swimming and Jade Jones in taekwondo, both of whom later won Olympic titles, are exceptions to the rule.

I was present at a press conference during Rio 2016 when the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) President, Sebastian Coe, announced following a Council meeting that the recently re-named IAAF World Under-18 Championships - which had run biennially as the World Youth Championships since 1999 - would be discontinued after their scheduled running in Nairobi in 2017.

"We decided it's not the best pathway for those athletes at that stage of their career," said Coe, who suggested that competition at an area level would be a better fit for competitors younger than 18.

Jamaica's recently retired world 100m and 200m record holder Usain Bolt has spoken in the past of how useful he felt the 2003 IAAF World Youth Championships at Sherbrooke in Canada were to the development of his career.

"The World Youths were a big part of my education as an athlete," said Bolt, who won the 200m title by more than half-a-second in a Championship record of 20.40sec.

"They were in Canada and it was the first time I'd raced outside of the Caribbean. I remember I went there feeling confident about what I could do on the track, but it was all those other things, like food and being in a strange city, that made me think 'it's a really big world out there.'"

That said, the year before the 15-year-old Bolt had become the youngest ever gold medallist at the age category above the Sherbrooke Championships, winning the 200m title at the World Junior Championships in front of his home crowd in Kingston. So his career could be said to have been proceeding before Sherbrooke…

One of the strongest reasons for the IAAF's decision was the poor conversion rate from under-18 success to senior success.

Something less than 10 per cent of competitors in the World Youth Championships made it through to top international senior level, with fewer than 14 athletes winning gold at youth, junior and senior level - Bolt being one of them.

"The burn-out level was ridiculous," an IAAF insider told insidethegames.

As my erstwhile former colleague Nick Butler pointed out in a piece for this site last year, a 2013 study by Joshua L. Foss and Robert F. Chapman from the Department of Kinesiology at Indiana University concluded that "top junior athletes reach lifetime best performance at a significantly younger age than top senior athletes, with most failing to improve to a level required for success at the senior level". 

"One potential reason for this difference could be a difference in maturational pace," the pair added. "Successful junior athletes may be earlier maturers than top senior athletes, which may be advantageous for competitive success as a junior athlete. Successful senior athletes may be later maturers than top junior athletes, which may be advantageous for competitive success at the senior level."

Studies in the United States have also shown that athletes who cross-train as juniors have better results than athletes who specialise in one sport too early. There are mental and emotional problems with early specialisation as well as the physical issue of young muscles, tendons and ligaments being subjected to over-use.

Getting back to Bolt - while his career ended in a blizzard of brilliance, it is sometimes forgotten that, after his precocious arrival on the international scene, there were a number of bleak and success-free years where he struggled to maintain his standing as a top level sprinter. This was partly as a result of having to accommodate to scoliosis - a condition that curved his spine to the right and made his right leg half an inch shorter than his left.

So are youth-level international championships a case of "done too much, much too young?" The debate over this question will go on. What is not in question is that Sarajevo and Eastern Sarajevo will this week be earning a merited reward for their efforts of preparation, and in so doing, adding another vital layer to the city's identity as a place of positivity after the trauma of its days of war.