Philip Barker

Ten years ago, teenage sailor Darren Choy ignited the Flame on a floating stage at Marina Bay Sands in Singapore to set in motion the newest addition to the Olympic calendar.

The Flame for the first Youth Olympic Games (YOG) in 2010 burned in a lighthouse and that was appropriate. They were intended as a beacon for aspiring teenage athletes and were the brainchild of Jacques Rogge, then President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

The IOC President formally closes each Olympic Games with the words: "In accordance with our tradition, I call upon the youth of the world to gather in four years from now there to celebrate with us the Games of the Olympiad."

But 40 years ago at the Moscow 1980 Olympics, there were many who did not gather. Rogge’s successor as IOC President, Thomas Bach, was one of many athletes unable to attend because West Germany supported a United States-led boycott of the Games.

It was a similar story four years later when the Soviet bloc snubbed the Los Angeles 1984 Games in retaliation.

Rogge had been Chef de Mission of the Belgian team during this era.

He became concerned that the decade of boycotts would prevent contact between athletes of East and West. As President of the European Olympic Committees (EOC), he was a driving force behind the establishment of what were initially known as European Youth Olympic Days. The first of these events took place in Brussels in 1991.

Darren Choy carries the Flame at the Opening Ceremony ©Getty Images
Darren Choy carries the Flame at the Opening Ceremony ©Getty Images

That summer, Rogge was also co-opted as an IOC member. Within a decade he had become its President.

Rogge was now concerned with the global level where he had seen a drop in sport participation levels as other forms of entertainment grew in popularity.

At the 2007 IOC Session in Guatemala, he presented his project for introducing the YOG and what it would address. "The change in society illustrated by an increase in obesity, a decline in sports participation especially among young people a drop in school sport, the disappearance of playing fields."

Targeted at 14- to 18-year-olds, the YOG would "be complementary to the Olympic Games and would increase the appeal of sport and physical activity at the grassroot level," Rogge said.

"For some the Games would be a stepping stone to the Olympics but the YOG would also serve simply to help the athletes who did not make that step to be better human beings."

Juan Antonio Samaranch, former President of the IOC, insisted this was "possibly the most important step it had ever taken".

By now Patrick Hickey of Ireland had taken on the EOC mantle. Under his leadership, the European youth event had continued to develop and was now known as the European Youth Olympic Festival.(EYOF). Rogge had taken the European event as his template.

EOC President Hickey told his fellow IOC members: "It had been a phenomenal success. The athletes took part before they could smell money and before they were lured into doping."

The idea was approved and the first Games set for 2010.

Jacques Rogge, at the time IOC President, at the Singapore 2010 sailing venue ©Philip Barker
Jacques Rogge, at the time IOC President, at the Singapore 2010 sailing venue ©Philip Barker

The first host city was chosen by postal vote. In the final ballot, members were asked to choose between Moscow and Singapore.

"The IOC can be assured that the first YOG, if held in Singapore, will be an event the world will be proud of," said Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean.

Each National Olympic Committee (NOC) was permitted a maximum of 70 competitors to the Games and the Olympic symbolism was adapted to the Youth Olympic Games. The Flame was lit in Ancient Olympia and travelled to all five continents before arriving in Singapore for the final "Journey of the Olympic Flame".

The first YOG mascots were a lion cub called Lyo and a merlion called Merly. Lyo was short for "Lion of the Youth Olympics" and was to inspire youngsters "to keep fit and enjoy sports for life". Merly came from "mer", meaning the sea, and "l-y", which stands for liveliness and youthfulness.

An official song was launched. It was entitled Everyone and was performed by singers from all five continents.

The promotion and communication of the YOG would be "chiefly through the media channels favoured by young people", Rogge had said.

Twitter was used widely during the 2010 Games, and employed to particularly good effect during the sailing competition as volunteers sent back progress reports to those on shore.

"I am very comfortable with Twitter" Rogge, a three-time Olympian in sailing, declared.

"I am coming to the roots of a sport that I love. If I could have had something like this, I would have been very happy. I was raised in the very traditional model."

The YOG also provided a stage for new events. Basketball’s 3x3 format was seen at the Scape Youth Space. It was the first YOG discipline chosen for inclusion in the full Olympic programme and is set for Tokyo next year.

A sculpture celebrating the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore ©Philip Barker
A sculpture celebrating the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore ©Philip Barker

Ever since, the YOG has been a "laboratory" for new sports.

Rogge had also promised an educational programme as part of the YOG. In Singapore this was known as the "Cultural and Education Programme". It included "Chat with Champions" sessions, with Olympians as YOG ambassadors and Athlete Role Models.

Japanese triathlete Yuka Sato wrote her name in the history books as the first gold medallist at the first Games. She duly competed in the Olympics at Rio 2016 where she finished 15th but inevitably she has eyes on 2021. "Having the Olympics in Tokyo is very exciting for me and I can take inspiration and power from that," she said.

South African swimmer Chad le Clos made the transition from YOG gold medallist to Olympic champion in less than two years. The following day, taekwondo player Jade Jones of Britain started on the same golden path. Australia’s Emma McKeon and Madi Wilson both won relay gold in Singapore but had to wait until Rio 2016 for their Olympic gold medals.

Although most within Olympic circles considered the YOG to be a success, veteran Canadian IOC member Richard Pound expressed concern from the outset that "the problems facing young people were part of global problems beyond sport". He also warned that "giving the NOCs the responsibility to select teams with totally different selection criteria would also cost" and asked if "the legal issues of having minors as competitors had been considered."

Others were concerned that undue pressure might be placed on the competing youngsters. It certainly seemed to be so in 2010 with Choy, who was the host nation’s major gold-medal prospect. Even government officials spoke of their expectations. He was for the most part shielded from the media, but when interviewed, he proved somewhat taciturn and out on the water, he faded from medal contention to seventh place.

Elsewhere, there were also rumours that bonuses had been offered to competitors and medal tables appeared in some newspapers, completely contrary to the Olympic Charter.

More worryingly, there were two doping offences in the boys’ wrestling . Nurbek Hakkulov of Uzbekistan was stripped of his silver medal and Johnny Pilay of Ecuador was also disqualified. Both had taken furosemide.

The Opening Ceremony in Singapore ©Getty Images
The Opening Ceremony in Singapore ©Getty Images

In the boys’ taekwondo, there was political controversy when Mohammad Soleimani of Iran forfeited the under-48 kilograms final.

Gili Haimovitz of Israel won gold by default. The Iranians claimed that Soleimani was unable to fight because of injury, but the Israelis insisted "politics has overcome the sporting spirit."

As the Games came to a close, a new YOG handover flag was presented to Nanjing, host city for 2014. The choice had caused consternation among some IOC members.

The late Peter Tallberg of Finland said "Singapore is a good example to nations who cannot organise the normal Olympic Games. I feel they should go to countries who do not have the same possibilities as a country like China."

Though the 2014 events were staged magnificently, with Opening and Closing Ceremonies that would not have disgraced the Olympics themselves, they did lose something of the intimacy that usually goes with youth sport.

Following the IOC’s virtual Session last month, the Summer Games in Dakar were postponed until 2026. These had originally been scheduled for 2022.

Belgian IOC member Ingmar de Vos called for an alternative to fill the gap for a generation that could now miss out on the YOG cycle altogether. It seems that although continental events such as the EYOF will proceed, there will be nothing on a global scale.

"The major concern for Dakar was this proliferation of five Olympic events in three years which made it almost impossible for the International Federations," Bach had said.

There has been much talk of re-inventing sport in the post-coronavirus world. YOG organisers of the future may well have to do the same.