What Happens When You Cancel The Youth Olympic Games?
The 2022 Youth Olympic Games were slated for Dakar, Senegal, in October and November, the first Olympic event to be staged in Africa. Like many other events during the COVID-19 pandemic, the quadrennial event was postponed by the International Olympic Committee. But in this case, the IOC took the step of moving the event back to 2026, a full four-year cycle, instead of giving Senegal a year or two to host the event safely.1
Increasingly, the IOC has used the YOG as a test for potential future Olympic sports. Skateboarding and sport climbing both made their debuts in the 2014 YOG before featuring in the 2020 Olympics, and freestyle skiing’s big air event made its debut at the 2020 YOG before featuring in the 2022 Olympics. Breaking will make its debut in Paris 2024 after a successful trial at Buenos Aires in 2018. Dakar 2022 was set to showcase Wushu and a street variation of baseball called Baseball5.
All of the athletes who had planned to compete in the 35 sports scheduled for Dakar will feel the loss of the event. Without a YOG in 2022, many elite athletes in the age range of 15 to 18 this year will lose out on a high-performance event as they develop toward the ultimate goal of being an Olympian. “When we were at the Youth Olympics, it was like a proper Olympic set-up,” Emma McKeon, Australia’s most decorated Olympian, told the IOC in an interview about her experience swimming at the YOG. “We had a village, and we had all the different sports; I really enjoyed it and it gave me a little taste of what the Olympics would be like.”
The first Youth Olympic Games were held in 2010 under the leadership of then-IOC President Jacques Rogge, who had pushed for the event in 2007, believing that interest in sports among young people was waning. Immediately, the event was designed to promote a balance between high-performance competition and “fun,” so that it did not seem that the IOC was pushing teen athletes to view sports solely as a vehicle for competition.
“It must be fun, it cannot be too serious, there should not be a gravity that you have at the traditional games. That’s for later,” Rogge said at the time. “They are between 15 and 18, and that is the age to celebrate, not necessarily the age to achieve. For me, the measurement of success lies in the happiness of the athlete. If the athletes are happy, then for me the experience is a success.”
Since its first edition, the event has grown to around 4,000 athletes and 32 sports in the latest Summer YOG and 1,800 athletes and eight sports in the latest Winter YOG.
Bidding to host the YOG has been fully integrated into the IOC’s “future host commissions,” with the process undertaken by the same members who decide which “preferred” cities around the world should be recommended to the organization’s membership for Olympic hosting.
This process was first tested with the 2022 YOG cycle in 2018 before becoming the official way for selecting new host cities the following year. Dakar was chosen from four African cities, specifically to bring the event to the continent in an effort to produce a viable African Olympic bid in the future.
McKeon, the swimmer, was part of a crop of athletes who had success at the 2010 Youth Olympic Games in Singapore and would go on to repeat that success at the Olympic Games. A FiveThirtyEight analysis found 49 individual medalists who competed in Singapore and went on to medal at a future Olympic Games, according to data from Olympedia.2
Of those medalists, 15 athletes medaled immediately at the 2012 Olympics in London. Four years later, that number nearly doubled to 28 medaling athletes at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, and four years after that, 21 of those 2010 YOG medalists took home hardware from the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
For many Youth Olympians, there is some opportunity to replicate that success in the immediate Olympic cycle — and more opportunities to develop into Olympians in the coming cycles.
Youth Olympics medalists have found success in the Olympics
Number of athletes who medaled in a Youth Olympic Games and went on to medal in a future Olympic Games, by length of time after the YOG that the athlete medaled
|Event||Total future medalists||2 years later||6 years later||10 years later|
|2010 Youth Olympics||49||15||28||21|
|2014 Youth Olympics||40||12||31||—|
|2018 Youth Olympics||22||22||—||—|
|Event||Total future medalists||2 years later||6 years later||10 years later|
|2012 Youth Olympics||17||3||10||7|
|2016 Youth Olympics||13||5||13||—|
|2020 Youth Olympics||4||4||—||—|
These trends extend far beyond just medalists. According to an IOC spokesperson, nearly 1,100 athletes have gone on to compete at the Olympics following appearances at the YOG. The number of YOG alumni who have competed in the Olympics has grown from 201 Summer YOG athletes in London 2012 to 713 at Tokyo 2020, and 67 YOG alumni at the 2014 Winter Games to 341 at Beijing 2022.
This shows that there may not be much of an impact for the upcoming 2024 Paris Olympics without a 2022 YOG in Dakar, but its absence could affect young elite athletes as they work their way toward the following 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles.
Researchers say that access to a single high-level sporting competition is rarely the most important part of developing young elite athletes. Athlete development includes many factors and rarely happens in a linear fashion.
Carrie W. LeCrom, the executive director of the Center for Sport Leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University, told FiveThirtyEight that “qualified and effective coaches are much more critical” to future athlete success than going to a single YOG. Having a coach that can help elicit the best of an athlete in a supportive, impactful environment will help them ultimately overcome the lack of a YOG, especially when taking a long-term view of athlete development.
“What they will miss out in not having the Games are things like the camaraderie that’s built through competitions like these, the cultural communication and understanding that’s built when people from different countries come together, and the educational components to the Youth Olympic Games that are such a great learning experience,” LeCrom said.
The lack of opportunities for different events will be felt disproportionately around the world. In some countries, it is likely that YOG athletes will not have opportunities to compete in other high-level events or maintain access to facilities without a showpiece to look forward to like a Youth Olympics.
Eric Legg, a professor at Arizona State University who studies community sport experiences, told FiveThirtyEight that the event’s postponement will certainly be a “big disappointment” for all athletes who were looking to go to Dakar this year. However, broadly speaking, the YOG has not increased sports participation around the world as much as its creators had hoped.
Without an event in this cycle, the empty space could give sport organizations the chance to look at the overall landscape and make adjustments needed to fill the void more comprehensively to help foster a supportive and robust environment for youth athletes — that is, if those organizations choose to invest the resources. Also, promoting goals and accomplishments that athletes can reach below the YOG will make both the YOG and the Olympics more attainable and help athletes stay involved in sports longer, so they aren’t discouraged by not being on the elite athlete pipeline.
“There are a small number of youth who are interested and capable of competing at elite levels,” Jon Solomon, editorial director of the Sports & Society Program at The Aspen Institute, told FiveThirtyEight. “The challenge is that in our society’s quest to keep up, we’ve created a youth sports system that leaves too many children behind due to income and ability.”
With a gap in the YOG timeline afforded by the postponement to Dakar 2026, and no events scheduled except the 2024 Winter edition in Gangwon, South Korea, this postponement could afford an opportunity for the organization to rethink its place in the youth sports landscape. Some investments in high-level youth events have been made at the continental level, but an examination of the effects of these events on grassroots youth sports is warranted.
“The race to the top among youth athletes has created a divide in who has access to sports. Like much of society, our sports opportunities for kids have become the haves versus the have-nots based on affordability and ability,” Solomon said. “If you don’t have those resources, there are fewer and fewer options in recent decades for affordable, quality, local sports opportunities.”
Fewer and fewer options put stress on events like the YOG to live up to its mandate of getting more people interested in sport, competing at a high level and learning more about each other and the values of the Olympics.
The YOG has been successful in its mission as it continues to grow in size, incorporate new events and provide high-level opportunities for athletes in smaller, less-funded countries. Keeping the Games in Dakar in four years guarantees the IOC will fulfill its mission of bringing an Olympic event to Africa.
Until that happens, the IOC says it plans to distribute its educational program to international federations and continental organizers so that these bodies can use them in youth-level championships that are still taking place this year. Even without a YOG to train for, these events are essential to “allow [athletes] to continue to develop their sporting careers at the elite level,” the spokesperson said. “The IOC and Senegal understood that the postponement of Dakar 2022 was disappointing for many young athletes. Both parties can only appeal to their understanding.”