A lot of bests have been seen over the last 11 days here in snowy Norway.
The young Organising Committee has been superb, the volunteers numerous, efficient and helpful, the transport service straightforward, the Wi-Fi flawless. And the sport, while lacking the drama and intensity of an Olympics proper, has been exciting and good to watch, blending the innovative monobob and cross-country cross with older and more established disciplines.
To a far greater extent than at Sochi 2014, and more so than we are likely to see in Pyeongchang 2018 and Beijing 2022, there was fresh and natural snow at every venue, evoking a true winter sporting vibe. Crowds have been good for the most part, with a total attendance of 214,000, while thousands have flocked to the daily concerts and cultural events in Sjogg Park, one of the real successes of these Games.
High Norwegian prices aside, our only gripe concerned the treacherous iciness of many of the roads and paths. We soon came to realise, however, that Norway is very different from health and safety-obsessed Britain and United States. You simply had to make the best of it, and we grew to love slipping, sliding and - on one occasion - rolling our way between venues.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) would probably describe a Games as “outstanding” even if only one man and his dog turned up, but when Thomas Bach made this claim ahead of the Closing Ceremony yesterday, it was hard to disagree.
So where does this leave the future of the Youth Olympics now four editions have been and gone?
A key legacy of former IOC President Jacques Rogge, support for the YOG has been less enthusiastic since his departure in 2013 and “assessing its future”, and maybe scrapping it altogether, was one element of Bach’s Agenda 2020 reform process. The leading critic has been Richard Pound, the belligerent backbench stalwart who has opposed the Youth Olympic concept ever since it was first mooted.
“It will not stop ‘couch potatoes sitting on the couch’", the absent Canadian told Norwegian newspaper Verdens Gang (VG) shortly before the start of Lillehammer 2016, seemingly jibing Bach by borrowing one of the German’s favourite phrases. "People do not put away their iPads, and run-out into nature because of this.”
Bach must have let out a huge sigh when he was told of Pound's comments.
"You can never stop the dissenting voice you have heard a few days before these Games," he countered.
Certainly some IOC members, particularly the older ones, share Pound’s concerns, although most tend to air them more privately. But several, including New Zealand's Barry Maister and Sweden's Athletes' Commission member Stefan Holm, questioned the low profile nature of the Youth Olympic Games during the Extraordinary IOC Session in Monte Carlo in 2014.
Most of those we have spoken to want a cost-benefit discussion following this event, with how much the Games precisely cost the IOC still something of a mystery. But they are keen to point out that financial factors are not the only driver.
“I’ve got a lot of time for Dick, who has done a lot for sport, but I think he’s slightly off the mark here, personally,” said one former athlete-turned member. “I think the Olympic Games is a revenue generator and it’s not really in our remit to have an event that doesn’t generate revenue. Yes, it does cost money. But if we can afford to do it, there’s a lot of benefits to be had.”
Pound is correct, broadly speaking, in his main gripe about these Youth Olympics not creating significant numbers of new athletes. Most of those who competed here are already on the path to greatness. Some, like American snowboarder Chloe Kim and Slovenian ski jumper Ema Klinec, are already among the best in the world. Do they really need this competition?
The IOC also claims to be delighted with the interaction beyond Norway, with over 3,400 media articles written outside the host nation amid 4.2 million people "reached" on Facebook. But, in reality, it has registered little to the rest of the world. In Britain, for instance, the BBC did articles following each of the British gold medals, but there has been little else and the response was invariably “Youth what…” when I told people where I was going.
“There are essentially three steps we could take,” another member told us: “We could scrap it, continue it, or amend it.”
Scrapping it appears unlikely for the foreseeable future given how it would be seen as a huge snub to Rogge, who was here as a spectator throughout Lillehammer 2016.
Amending it is interesting, and one idea being floated around is to remove the elite sporting component completely and to make it more a cultural celebration focusing solely on participation and education.
A Olympic Youth Festival, with participants from different countries in a mix of exhibition-style sport with social and cultural events is one such idea, rather like a United Nations (UN) summer camp. This would also be a means to strengthen IOC ties with the UN, a key priority for Bach.
Youngsters participating in
Youngsters participating in "Try the Sport" events during Lillehammer 2016 ©IOC
As we shall see, however, the German has already indicated his opposition to such a shift. It is also interesting that most members we spoke to specifically mentioned elite athletes and competition when asked about the benefits of the Youth Olympics.
“My opinion is that they [the YOG] should continue, as it serves as preparation for potential elite athletes,” said Peru’s Ivan Dibos. “As we know sport brings with itself values such as respect, dedication and teamwork, which are important for the integral education of young athletes towards their adult life. Granting access to the Olympic experience at a young age could be a turning point in youth lives, and this could have a multiplying effect on other youth in their respective countries.”
An IOC Executive Board member said: "I know that there is another point of view and some doubts concerning the high costs of [the] YOG. However, it must be said that the IOC has stable financial situation and our job is it to invest our resources to the promotion of Olympic values and especially for the Youth. I am sure that cancelling [the] YOG would not be the right message but of course we can look for the new format."
Athletes’ Commission member Adam Pengilly, the former skeleton bobsledder who was Chef de Mission of the British team here, cited how the Youth Olympics had created opportunities for athletes, young members of staff, coaches, for 800 volunteers under the age of 20, and for newly trained sports and venue managers.
“The most exciting thing from my perspective has been seeing the athletes grow in confidence,” he added in relation to the British team. “I had a mum that I was speaking to yesterday, who said, ‘Thank you so much, this whole event and the qualification has done wonders for my daughter. I’ve had teachers at school saying she is putting her hand-up more, asking questions, and growing in confidence and engagement’. This event has done wonders for young people in ways that doesn’t just mean sport.”
Bach, of course, will have the final say and, Pound aside, this does not really seem an issue which most members would be prepared to take him on about. His response here, in public at least, has been one of wholehearted support.
“Yes,” he answered in a virtually unprecedented one-word response when asked whether the benefits outweighed the costs. He then tied his colours firmly to the mast of the Youth Olympics remaining, first and foremost, an elite sporting test.
"For me, and again, there will be discussion, the Winter Youth Olympics and the Youth Olympic Games is a sports event. It is about sport, but it is an event which gives us the opportunity to highlight the Olympic values. For me, this combination is the most important aspect."
A Tripartite Commission made up of representatives from athletes, [International] Federations and National Olympic Committees will be set up to explore this further. IOC members will certainly want their say as well.
It certainly appears there will be no significant changes before the next winter edition in Lausanne in 2020, with their chief executive Ian Logan having told insidethegames how they hope to use their event to prove the Winter Youth Olympics’ worth to the IOC.
For the following edition, set to be held in 2023 rather than 2024, all the cards remain up in the air.
What is clear, however, is that Lillehammer 2016 has certainly boosted the Youth Olympic cause. The last summer edition in Nanjing was simply too big, too extravagant and too expensive and Norway put on an event which was far more in tune with Rogge’s initial idea.
Time will tell how significant it really was.