Known for hosting what’s widely known as “the best Winter Olympics ever” in 1994, the Norwegian city of Lillehammer was ready to start hosting another youthful version beginning this weekend. While Oslo voted against hosting another full-scale Olympics in 2022, more than a thousand young athletes from 70 nations have gathered in and around Lillehammer to compete over the next nine days.
The so-called Youth Olympic Games provide top-level competitive venues for budding athletes aged 15 to 18, many of whom may become the sports stars of the future. The goal is to inspire youth around the world to take part in sports.
Organizers feared the traditional Olympics “were losing interest among youth,” Gerhard Heiberg, a Norwegian member of the International Olympic Committee who headed Lillehammer’s 1994 Olympics, told newspaper Aftenposten. “Their interests were going in other directions, sitting more with their PCs.” Heiberg said that former IOC President Jacques Rogge thought the IOC needed to do something to spark more interest, and the winter games opening Friday evening are the second to be held after the first in Innsbruck in 2012. Two youth summer youth Olympics have also been held, the first in Singapore in 2010 and the second in Nanjing in 2014.
Despite criticism in some quarters, with even IOC member Dick Pound telling newspaper VG recently that the Youth Olympics are a waste of money, Heiberg said that 75 of 92 IOC members have traveled to Lillehammer including IOC President Thomas Bach.
“They probably want to rekindle a bit of the magic from the Olympics in 1994, but they know they won’t be coming to a traditional Olympics,” Heiberg told Aftenposten. “There are no limousines or VIP events or big budgets. They’ll be bussed around and see a Youth Olympics at a budget of NOK 300 million (USD 35 million).”
It was the negative public opinion in Norway towards the limousines, VIP demands of some IOC members and exhorbitant costs characterizing recent Olympics that ultimately forced the government to halt a bid by Oslo’s former city government that seemed likely to win, after most other potential host cities also dropped out for the same reasons. Heiberg suggested the Youth Olympics are a means of showing how Olympic-style events can be held on a smaller scale, adding that the IOC provided NOK 140 million of the NOK 300 million budget. He also said he was “extremely disappointed” by Pound’s remarks.
“Of course there was debate within the IOC before we decided us to start a Youth Olympics,” Heiberg said. “Pound can gladly have his private opinion, but to voice it in such a way is, I think, highly disloyal.”
The young winter sports athletes competing in everything from skiing and skating to bobsledding, curling and ice hockey have been training at venues in Lillehammer, Hamar, Øyer, Gjøvik and even Oslo, where some snowboarding events will be held. Norway itself has mounted a team of 73 athletes from 12 counties around the country, based on their presentation “but the Youth Olympics is seen as more than just a sports competition,” state athletics chief Tore Øvrebø told news bureau NTB recently. “For some, this will be the high point of their sports activity, for others it will be a step along the way to a career in sports.”
In addition to all the althletes and their support apparatus, thousands of volunteers have also been involved from both within and outside Norway. Norway’s royal family will also have a major presence at Youth Olympics events. The 12-year-old daughter of Crown Prince Haakon, who lit the Olympic torch in 1994, will do the same exactly 22 years later on Friday evening, and both King Harald, Queen Sonja, Haakon and his wife, Crown Princess Mette-Marit, will be showing up thoughout the nine days of competition. So will many sports stars, with retired downhill racer and multiple Olympic gold medalist Kjetil André Aamodt serving as an one of many “ambassadors” for the Youth Olympics.
Young Princess Ingrid Alexandra, heir to the throne after her father and grandfather, was due to light the torch at 7pm during Opening Ceremonies Friday evening. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) was scheduled to carry live coverage and a wrap-up later in the evening. Some ice hockey and curling events were starting even before the ceremonies, while Saturday’s program included figure and speed skating, more hockey and curling plus alpine and cross country skiing. (For the full program, click here, external link)
The weather forecast was in the organizers’ favour, with “super conditions” predicted under mostly sunny skies and temperatures of around minus-7-10C. After weeks of cloudy weather, rain and unseasonably high temperatures, “the arrangers have incredibly good luck,” said state meteorologist Øyvind Johnsen.