ISF president stresses how his young organization is learning as it looks towards the future

Laurent Petrynka of the International School Sports Federation tells Around the Rings “We are quite a teenager, at this time we are not perfect in a lot of subjects.”

ISF president Laurent Petrynka (ISF)
ISF president Laurent Petrynka (ISF)

Around the Rings recently had the opportunity to interview International School Sports Federation (ISF) President Laurent Petrynka. The discussion focused on the recently completed U15 Gymnasiade in Belgrade, Serbia, and more importantly, the future of the international school sports movement.

When asked what he would change about the organization of the U15 Gymnasiade, Petrynka commented, “We have so many things to change that we also have to accept that we are a federation that is building. We are quite a teenager, at this time we are not perfect in a lot of subjects.”

He went on to detail the high point of the U15 Gymnasiade from his perspective, saying, “The point which was really perfect is the forum. I think the forum for the education of adults was the best forum we organized. It was for us a great expectation.”

He also went on to describe one of the low points of the U15 Gymnasiade, stating, “I think we should have, and it’s due to COVID, anticipated the registration [difficulties]. It was quite difficult to do it, but now we are taking into consideration that we have to have more countries [involved].”

“Obviously it’s not enough, so I will change and anticipate more registration, and spend more time, and much more communication, to convince all the countries to get more participation. I will maybe anticipate these difficulties to give more accessibility to more countries.”

Speaking on the low participation rate at the U15 Gymnasiade, he said, “it is true that we were expecting many more countries. Unfortunately, in the last months [before the event], more than 15 cancelled because of difficulties relating to the pandemic. It was something we could understand. For example, Morocco had a big delegation and had to cancel at the last moment, and France could not fix the maximum size of their delegation due to COVID.”

“The second reason for that number is that it was a new format. It was under 15, so [national federations] were not completely prepared for this.”

“The third reason is the fact that, depending on the country, the means of school sport are still to be improved. Some of the federations can’t afford to support the delegation for these Games and for another. For the [U18] Gymnasiade in France it will be better; there will be more athletes.”

“Some of them [national federations] can afford to, but some of them cannot, so they have to use every euro or dollar to organize. That’s why we are expecting much more in Normandie. We are only in October, so now all the countries know the conditions of Normandie. It will be in May, so I am sure that there will be around 70 to 80 countries.”

He also detailed the ISF’s pitch for the upcoming U18 Gymnasiade in Normandie, stating, “our Games are two years before the Paris 2024 Games; “The Games before the Games.” It is important for the national federations because they can be motivated to find the funding within the government [or] private entities, and to motivate the different national teams to be ready for the [Paris 2024] Games.”

Looking to the future, Petrynka also spoke on the ISF’s decision to award the 2023 U15 Gymnasiade to Rio.

Youngsters walk past the Olympic rings at Madureira Park, the third largest park in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on July 1, 2015, 400 days ahead of the Rio 2016 Olympic games. The 12-meter-high symbol was shipped from Great Britain after having decorated the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle during the 2012 London Olympic Games. AFP PHOTO / YASUYOSHI CHIBA        (Photo credit should read YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images)
Youngsters walk past the Olympic rings at Madureira Park, the third largest park in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on July 1, 2015, 400 days ahead of the Rio 2016 Olympic games. The 12-meter-high symbol was shipped from Great Britain after having decorated the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle during the 2012 London Olympic Games. AFP PHOTO / YASUYOSHI CHIBA (Photo credit should read YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images)

“We had the visit [in Serbia] of two very important ministers of education and sport. The Minister of Education and Sport for Ukraine and the Minister of Sport for Brazil. Both countries were interested in hosting the next event. Following a discussion with our executive committee, and within our own regulations, we decided to attribute [the next U15 Gymnasiade] to Brazil.

“For us, it is a great decision because, as the minister of sport explained, following the success of the Rio Olympics, they wish to maintain the facilities and venues by doing some sport. It’s very important for them to go on and to maximize the investment in the state of Rio and globally the state of Brazil.

“The second point is of course that the asset of education and sport is something that carries a lot [of weight] for President [Jair} Bolsonaro, who the ISF will meet with at the end of October in Rio to explain, and present, the outcomes of Serbia, and prepare the best conditions for Rio 2023.

“Education and sport is a good message, so we are very confident that when you have this kind of country on the table that the Games of Rio will always be better than the past ones. We try each edition to improve ourselves.”

He dove further into the “double agenda” of sport and education, saying, “I know that sometimes some of the coaches say “oh, I want to focus on sport and that’s it because [the athletes] have to rest in the afternoon,” but we organize the double agenda for the athletes who are students.”

“That’s why we want to do something different than many other federations of high level to have our own identity. Our identity is our motto [of] education through sport, so we don’t believe in the fact if you only do sport you are educated. That’s not enough.”

“It depends on the way you practice, it depends on the way you teach, it depends on the coach, it depends on many subjects. If you don’t spread a clear message at a good moment, I think you miss a part of the teaching.”

“We see some problem in sports now like harassment, doping, and sexual abuse, that happen in all fields of society of course, but the sector of sport is concerned also. It means you have to spread the education to the athletes and to the coaches very early.”

“For Serbia, we dedicated a special program to harassment led by one of our executive board members Sophie Bordet for example. During the cultural ceremony at the Games, countries were able to make presentations on things like sustainability, harassment, doping, etc.”

“We are always building good cooperation with stakeholders in order to promote this inside our event. We will go on the way towards having an education village around the Gymnasiade, which is really our format.”

Petrynka also spoke on the appeal of the ISF’s Gymnasiade format to world leaders, saying, “I had the opportunity to promote our message to Vladimir Putin, and I will present it to Bolsonaro. Each time you talk to a head of state about the fact that [their country] can do the best in sport, I tell them ‘I think you will miss something if you don’t care about the fact that, for young generation, you must also organize school sport event and school sport at the international level.’”

“It takes two minutes to have a yes. It means that I have to my battering, in order to convince, one by one, all the heads of state because at this level they immediately say yes because, at this time, we cannot turn our back to the young generation. You have so many reasons why you have to take care of the young generation that immediately these high level leaders say yes.”

Olympics - French Olympic medallists arrive with the Olympic flag in Paris - Paris, France - August 9, 2021 The Olympic flag is seen raised during a ceremony with french Olympic medallists outside Paris City hall REUTERS/Sarah Meyssonnier
Olympics - French Olympic medallists arrive with the Olympic flag in Paris - Paris, France - August 9, 2021 The Olympic flag is seen raised during a ceremony with french Olympic medallists outside Paris City hall REUTERS/Sarah Meyssonnier

Finally, he also talked about the political position the ISF maintains, stating, “there is one political point which is quite important for us. When you raise the study with national Olympic committees, something like 90 percent of NOCs consider the fact that [they] are not in contact enough with schools. That is why we say in school sport that the doors are very open and that we are building some bridges between school and the Olympic movement.”

“I think it is our responsibility for one simple reason that school is stopping at one moment. It’s stopping between 16 and 18 for sure in many countries, unless later you go to a university, but for us, clearly, the school stops.”

“It means that we have the responsibility not to keep the students from us, but to make the leap as soon as possible with the national federations. We spread the same message that we are doing this job together, that we are working together in order to establish very early the link between schools and social sport. This point of cooperation with the Olympic movement is very important.”

Petrynka expanded on the ISF’s relationship with the IOC, adding, “I think that the pillar of school is still a new frontier for the Olympic movement, and that we have to improve it.”

“We want to work more closely with the IOC in order to ensure that things are possible. We will improve this thinking, satisfying the NOC, saying that 90 percent are not satisfied [with] the relationship. It means that we have to improve.”

“We are fully at the disposal of the IOC in order to improve this part [of the relationship], and we want to encourage this pillar of development with school sport.”