The Vortex at the Youth Olympic Village with a large display of national flags at the Youth Olympic Games Lausanne 2020 on Jan. 6, 2020 in Lausanne, Switzerland.
The third edition of the Winter Youth Olympic Games begins Friday in Lausanne, Switzerland, and if the name doesn’t ring the sharpest bell, it’s probably because the Youth Olympic Games are still only 10 years old.
While the 32nd edition of the summer Olympic Games is set to begin in Tokyo in July, this newer iteration of the quadrennial event, featuring 1,880 athletes between the ages of 15 and 18 years old, casts a global spotlight on potential future Olympic stars but also fosters education and champions their continued athletic development.
The first Summer Youth Olympic Games was held in 2010 in Singapore, while the Winter Youth Olympic Games debuted two years later in Innsbruck, Austria. Lausanne will mark the third Winter Youth Olympic Games.
To help clear up any remaining confusion about the two, here are a few Youth Olympic myths, debunked.
Myth 1: Youth Olympic Games sports are the same as at the Olympic Games
While all of the winter sports on the Olympic program (biathlon, bobsled, curling, ice hockey, luge, skating, and skiing and snowboarding) will figure in at the Lausanne Games, the programs of the Youth Olympics and Olympics are not entirely the same. The Winter Youth Olympics, with 81 medal events across 16 disciplines, features some different disciplines than its Olympic counterpart. The Youth Olympic Games program often emphasizes disciplines that might appeal to youthful audiences or further the International Olympic Committee’s goals for gender equality and accessibility within the Olympic program. In Lausanne, one new contest is ski mountaineering, a ski race that also requires athletes to tap into their mountaineering skills and ingenuity as they navigate steep and icy ascents on a specially laid course at Villars, a popular local ski area. Lausanne will also feature the debut of a mixed-nation 3x3 hockey tournament, women’s doubles luge and women’s Nordic combined. In some cases, the Youth Olympic Games even serves as a test run of sorts for inclusion into the Olympics. For example, monobob (i.e. single-person bobsled) was held at the 2016 Winter Youth Games, and two years later the IOC announced it will be contested at the 2022 Olympic Winter Games, too.
Myth 2: No Olympians take part in the Games
While it’s rare for Olympians to contend for medals at the Youth Olympic Games, Olympic athletes are a huge part of the Games. Twenty-six Olympian Athlete Role Models, or ARMs, hailing from the same sports contested in Lausanne, will be heavily involved in the Games. The 26 — including four Americans: 2010 Olympic moguls champion Hannah Kearney, 2014 snowboardcross bronze medalist Alex Deibold, 2014 bobsled bronze medalist Jamie Greubel Poser and Nordic combined standout Tara Geraghty-Moats — will be on hand to meet and mentor young athletes in the Youth Olympic village and at the training venues and give educational workshops.
Athlete ambassadors, whose ranks have included Lindsey Vonn, Michael Phelps and Michelle Wie at past editions of the Games, will also be an integral part of the Games. The U.S. delegation doesn’t lack for Olympians either, many of whom have served as coaches and team leaders at almost every past edition of the Youth Games.
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Myth 3: Youth Olympians aren't future Olympians
Qualification competitions for the Youth Olympics are built to ensure that participants hail from all corners of the globe, and while that means the level of competition might not be quite as fierce as at the Olympic Games, it still ensures some likely future Olympic champions are in the mix. Before taking halfpipe snowboarding gold in PyeongChang in 2018, Chloe Kim won it (and slopestyle) at the Youth Olympics in 2016 in Lillehammer, Norway. Aaron Blunck, a two-time Olympian in freestyle skiing, won bronze in the halfpipe at the 2012 Youth Games in Innsbruck, Austria. Biathlete Sean Doherty built on his mixed relay bronze medal at the 2012 Youth Olympics and is now a two-time Olympian.
A legend in the making could include ice dancer Jeffrey Chen, whose older sister Karen is a 2018 Olympian in figure skating.
Myth 4: YOG host cities are never the same cities that host Olympic Games
Of the five editions of the Youth Olympic Games held so far, both Innsbruck and Lillehammer have also hosted an edition of the Olympic Games. Innsbruck hosted the Winter Games in 1964 and 1976 before welcoming the first Winter Youth Olympic Games in 2012, while Lillehammer memorably welcomed the Winter Games in 1994 and the Youth Games in 2016.
Other cities to have hosted — Singapore; Nanjing, China; Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Lausanne — are either new to the Olympic movement or considered too small to host a full-fledged Games. (Lausanne, of course, is home to the IOC and several other international sporting bodies.) In 2022, Dakar, Senegal, will become the first African city to host an Olympic event when it hosts the Summer Youth Olympic Games.
Myth 5: The Youth Olympics are completely sport focused
While the Olympic Games are strictly an athletic competition, the Youth Olympic Games are about much more than sport alone. Outside the competition venues, the aim of the Games is three-pronged: that athletes are protected, equipped with tools to better their performances, and return home having been exposed to Olympic values and things that will help them develop as athletes, but also as people.
To this end, the Lausanne 2020 Organizing Committee has partnered with the University of Lausanne and the EPFL, the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne, to develop an educational program. A revamped Learn & Share Program, a pillar of past Youth Games, is also ready for rollout. The end goal is not on the field of play or victory podiums, organizers stress. Rather, it is to give athletes a leg up in life as well as sport, so they can be successful no matter where life takes them.
Blythe Lawrence is a journalist based in Seattle. She has covered two Olympic Games and is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.