The future isn’t now — but it’s getting closer.
Just 100 days remain until the staging of the second Winter Youth Olympic Games begins in Lillehammer, Norway. The teenage spinoff of the big show has the aim of not just launching young athletes into the next Olympic Games but sending them out to spread the gospel of the movement itself.
Some 1,100 athletes ages 14 through 18 — including as many as 70 from the United States — will gather Feb. 12-21 in Lillehammer, site of the Olympic Winter Games 22 years ago. Chances are, more than a few will show up again in PyeongChang, South Korea, when the next Olympic Winter Games convenes in 2018.
But that’s more of a by-product and not necessarily the driver behind the concept.
“It’s a program that’s less about the competition — although the competition is a big component,” said Wes Barnett, Team USA’s chef de mission for the Lillehammer event, “and more about getting together for learning opportunities, and then taking those lessons and going back into their home communities and being evangelists for the Olympic movement.”
To that end, YOG organizers invest as much effort into what Barnett said is now being called the “learn and share program” as in divvying up medals. Workshops that focus on team-building, exploring other cultures and interactive exercises play a huge part in fostering the Olympic ideal; so do mixed events in competition that pair athletes from different nations as teammates.
So vital is the imparting and sharing of the Olympism concept that in each sport there’s a day off from competition and training built in for learning and sharing opportunities.
But there’s plenty of competition, too.
“Anytime you put athletes together and give medals out,” said Barnett, “you’re going to get those competitive juices and spirit going.”
At the first Winter Youth Olympic Games in Innsbruck in 2012, Team USA found out just how spirited the competition was. But it also propelled a handful of American athletes onto the 2014 Olympic team.
Snowboarder Arielle Gold, for instance, won silver medals in both halfpipe and slopestyle at Innsbruck as a 15-year-old; two years later, she was part of the U.S. team in Sochi. Lugers Tucker West and Summer Britcher also made it to Sochi after being part of the gold-medal-winning mixed team relay at the YOG. Innsbruck bronze medalist Sean Doherty was part of the U.S. biathlon relay team in Sochi.
And freestyle skier Aaron Blunck, who took home a bronze from Innsbruck, was seventh in the 2014 Olympic halfpipe event.
Beyond that, the Team USA medal haul from the first Winter Youth Olympic Games was modest.
“When the (YOG) first came out, we took the message from the IOC literally: We were going to send a team there that was less about competition and more about the values being taught,” Barnett said. “Our results weren’t bad, but I think there’s always an expectation that we’re going to send a very competitive team that’s going to be near the top of the medal count. So we’re searching for a balance — we want to have a really quality competitive effort, but not overshadow the other aspects.”
Just what expectations Team USA might take to Lillehammer remains to be seen. The qualification process in most of the 15 sports is ongoing until the Jan. 18 deadline.
No new sports have been added to the menu, but a number of new events within the disciplines will debut in Lillehammer. Among them: singles (aka monobob) races in bobsledding, slopestyle skiing and snowboardcross. Mixed gender team events will be added in freestyle skiing and snowboarding as well as Nordic skiing.
Barnett, who serves as the director of international games for the United States Olympic Committee, is himself a 1992 and 1996 Olympic weightlifter. He particularly values the YOG as a rare chance to expose young athletes to an international multi-sport event before they might experience their first Olympic Games.
“Back in the day when the USOC used to have the annual sports festival, I thought that was a fantastic concept,” he said. “It was just a U.S. event, but it was the kind of thing that exposed you to an athletes’ village and interacting with athletes from other sports. Those are just different from a world or national championship in one sport.
“It’s good to get athletes in that environment so it doesn’t overwhelm them when they get to an Olympics down the line.”
In Lillehammer, of course, athletes will experience it at historic Olympic venues — though ones that have received substantial upgrades since the 1994 Games. Foremost among those is the iconic Lysgardsbakkene ski jumping arena, which will also double as site of the Opening Ceremony. There are also new venues for ice hockey and curling.
“We want this to be an experience the athletes will not only remember but draw upon after their time in sport,” Barnett said. “You can easily imagine the same people competing at an Olympic Games, and that fosters a whole community where sport can again break down barriers and bring people together.”
John Blanchette is a sportswriter from Spokane, Washington. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.