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From Singapore 2010 to Gangwon 2024: Jacques Rogge’s Vision of the Youth Olympic Games Rejuvenated the Olympic Movement

by Brian Pinelli

Sean Boxiong Shuai celebrates after winning the men's 500-meter finals at the Winter Youth Olympic Games Gangwon 2024 on Jan. 22, 2024 in Gangneung, South Korea. (Photo by Getty Images)

It is a golden opportunity for more than 1,800 teenage athletes from 78 countries to gain invaluable life experience and further their athletic pursuits, all of which may serve as a launching pad to greater sporting endeavors as they compete at the Winter Youth Olympic Games Gangwon 2024.

There are 101 athletes representing Team USA in Gangwon Province – in the same region where the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 were contested – with many expected to contend for medals across 15 winter sports.

International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach addressed the young athletes at the opening ceremony at the PyeongChang Dome on Jan. 19, ahead of 13 days of competition.

“It is your turn. Give it your best at your first Olympic competition. Make new friends. Live the Olympic values. Respect yourself. Respect your competitors. Respect the rules. Enjoy your Olympic experience. This is your time – to grow together – and to shine forever,” Bach said to the 15- to 18-year-old athletes assembled in Gangwon, South Korea.

Inspiring words from the IOC president, all of which would not be possible if not for the vision and creation of the Youth Olympic Games by Bach’s predecessor, Jacques Rogge, nearly 17 years ago.

Rogge, who served as IOC president from 2001-2013, brainstormed and implemented the youth-focused, multi-sport games concept, initiating the first European Youth Olympic Festival in his native Belgium, in Brussels in 1991. At the time, Rogge was president of the Belgian NOC.

The three-time Olympian in sailing continued to evaluate and perfect the concept, formally announcing plans for the first Youth Olympic Games, at the 119th IOC Session in Guatemala City, in July 2007. The inaugural YOG, a summer edition, were hosted in Singapore, in August 2010.

Rogge’s primary goals for the YOG were not only bringing the world’s talented young athletes together, but also emphasizing social responsibility, skills development and personal expression. An introduction to Olympism was provided, educating and engaging in dialogue of the Olympic values. Innovative new events, including mixed-gender variety, have regularly been showcased and evaluated. Invited Athlete Ambassadors share experiences, while mentoring the inexperienced international competitors.

Fourteen years after the Summer Youth Olympic Games Singapore 2010, Rogge’s Youth Olympic Games continue to thrive and expand, in some cases acting as a springboard for the teenaged athletes to the Olympic Games. Gangwon 2024 is the seventh edition of the multi-sport event, and fourth version contested on ice and snow in winter.

According to the IOC, 341 athletes from the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 had previously competed in a Winter YOG, with 53 winning Olympic medals.

Jacques Rogge speaks ahead of the Winter Youth Olympic Games Innsbruck 2012 in Innsbruck, Austria. (Photo by Brian Pinelli)

Its legacy visible in Gangwon this week, the second Youth Olympic Games in Innsbruck, and first to be organized in winter, in January 2012, were the last edition that IOC president Rogge would preside over. Significantly smaller in scale, some 1,022 young athletes representing 69 countries competed for 63 sets of medals.

On a cold and festive evening at the closing ceremony in downtown Innsbruck on Jan. 22, 2012, Rogge received the Olympic flag from Innsbruck Mayor Christine Oppitz-Plörer and in turn, passed it to Lillehammer Mayor Espen Johnson, who then handed it to 14-year-old Norwegian cross-country skier Mathea Tofte. The next Winter YOG was headed to the 1994 Olympic host city of Lillehammer, set for February 2016.

“By all measures, the first Winter Youth Olympic Games exceeded expectations and established a solid foundation for future Youth Games,” Rogge said, in Innsbruck, in Feb. 2012. “They were superbly refreshing Games.”

In front of an enthusiastic audience of about 4,000 gathered along Innsbruck’s Maria-Theresien-Strasse, Rogge addressed the young athletes: “You are role models for your generation. You have started something special in Innsbruck and no matter what happens in your sports career from this point, all of you are equipped to become future leaders.”

Those first Winter YOG, appropriately awarded to the 1964 and 1976 Olympic host city, were a laboratory of unproven events including women’s ski jumping, ski halfpipe and snowboard slopestyle, an important test ahead of their inclusion in the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014.

The multi-dimensional Culture and Education Program was also launched, enhancing the overall experience of the young athletes.

“There were so many firsts at these Games, so many incredible moments for the athletes and everyone involved in staging this event,” Rogge said, upon the conclusion of the Winter YOG.

“Innsbruck was a terrific continuation of the excellent work done at the first Summer Youth Olympic Games in Singapore in 2010, and it bodes very well for the future of the Youth Olympic Games,” he said.

River Radamus competes during the men's alpine slalom at Winter Youth Olympic Games Lillehammer 2016 on Feb. 19, 2016 in Lillehammer, Norway. (Photo by Getty Images)

The Winter YOG have continued to develop, expand and gain greater interest across the four editions. 

At the Winter Youth Olympic Games Lillehammer 2016, 1,067 athletes representing 71 nations competed in 70 medal events across seven sports. 

It marked a return for the Olympic movement to the Norwegian city, which hosted the Olympic Winter Games Lillehammer 1994 exactly 22 years prior. Building upon the legacy, historical sports venues constructed for the ’94 Winter Olympics were upgraded for the 2016 YOG.

Standout performances included U.S. alpine skier River Radamus, who stormed to three gold medals in his first three events at age 17. The achievements and experience set him on course to his current and successful FIS World Cup ski racing career.

Four years later, the third Winter YOG descended upon the Olympic capital of Lausanne, Switzerland, in January 2020. There were a substantially larger 1,872 athletes from 79 countries vying for medals in 81 events. The Games marked the first time in 72 years the movement returned to Switzerland after the Olympic Winter Games Saint Moritz 1948.

Chinese freestyle skier Eileen Gu was the brightest star at the Winter Youth Olympic Games Lausanne 2020 as she dazzled fans, winning three medals, including two gold. Two winters later at Beijing 2022, the innovative skier once again soared to three medals, including two gold.

Even after his IOC presidency, Dr. Jacques Rogge continued to attend the Youth Olympic Games as a distinguished guest.

Thomas Bach honored Rogge, speaking after his predecessor and close friend’s death at the age of 79, on Aug/ 29, 2021. He commended Rogge and his legacy, forever associated with the Youth Olympic Games.

“He was an accomplished president, helping to modernize and transform the IOC,” Bach said. “He will be remembered particularly for championing youth sport and for inaugurating the Youth Olympic Games.”