The legacy of the Winter Youth Olympic Games remains hazy a decade on from Innsbruck 2012

It’s been a full decade since the first Winter Youth Olympic Games, and with many past winter youth olympians preparing to compete in Beijing, it’s worth remembering the infant multi-sports games as their legacy and purpose continue to be a point of debate.

Innsbruck, Austria - January 20, 2012: Petra Vlhova of Slovakia holds up the mascot during the mascot ceremony of the ladies' slalom of alpine skiing event at the Innsbruck 2012 Youth Olympic Games in Innsbruck, Austria, Jan 20, 2012. 

Photo by Li Ming/Xinhua/IOC Hand out Photo

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Innsbruck, Austria - January 20, 2012: Petra Vlhova of Slovakia holds up the mascot during the mascot ceremony of the ladies' slalom of alpine skiing event at the Innsbruck 2012 Youth Olympic Games in Innsbruck, Austria, Jan 20, 2012. Photo by Li Ming/Xinhua/IOC Hand out Photo EDITORIAL USE ONLY. STRICTLY NO COMMERCIAL USE.

Innsbruck 2012 marked the beginning of a journey that would take the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and youth athletes back to old Olympic stomping grounds for elite, developmental competition along with sporting innovation.

The IOC have labeled the 2012 Winter Youth Olympics as a “catalyst for innovation,” in part because of the innovative sports program developed for the Games.

Innsbruck 2012 featured an innovative sports program that brought about the introduction of mixed team events to the Olympic stage. The team event in alpine skiing, mixed relay in biathlon, team relay in luge, and mixed team event in ski jumping all made their debut on the Olympic program as events at Innsbruck 2012.

New age Winter Olympic events such as the mass start in speed skating, and slopestyle events in freestyle skiing and snowboarding, also got their start at Innsbruck 2012.

One of the more controversial sporting innovations offered by Innsbruck 2012 was the introduction of mixed national olympic committee events. These events saw athletes from different countries join together on teams of mixed nationality that aimed to inspire multi-national dialogue and teamwork. The events have since been phased out of future Youth Olympic Games, but they represent part of the innovation and growing pains of the Winter Youth Olympics.

Innsbruck, Austria - January 15, 2012: Spectators watch the competation of Matheson Hill during Luge Men¡¯s Singles of Innsbruck 2012 Youth Olympic Games in Innsbruck, Austria, Jan 15 2012. Paffe won the gold medal.
Photo by Wu Wei/Xinhua/IOC Hand out Photo

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Innsbruck, Austria - January 15, 2012: Spectators watch the competation of Matheson Hill during Luge Men¡¯s Singles of Innsbruck 2012 Youth Olympic Games in Innsbruck, Austria, Jan 15 2012. Paffe won the gold medal. Photo by Wu Wei/Xinhua/IOC Hand out Photo EDITORIAL USE ONLY. STRICTLY NO COMMERCIAL USE.

Those growing pains have often been the site of criticism by detractors of the Youth Olympic Games (YOG), with the purpose and necessity of the youth sporting event being a point of debate since the event was conceived.

The Winter Youth Olympics have been criticized and bemoaned for their odd age intervals, quota constraints, lack of media coverage, and experimental competitions.

Innsbruck 2012 was designed for athletes between the ages of 15 and 18. However, some sports limited participation to athletes between the ages of 17 and 18.

The decision to allow these age intervals has continued to plague the Winter Youth Olympics, as some youth athletes continue to be shut out from competing simply due to the year they were born not being compatible with the competition cycle.

Innsbruck 2012 also featured a condensed number of athletes compared to the full blown Winter Olympics.

While this may have helped with the organization and budgeting of the inaugural winter sporting event, it has continued to affect the viability of the Winter Youth Olympics as a developmental event, limiting participation at the Games to a select few athletes rather than a more broad selection of Olympic hopefuls.

Innsbruck, Austria - January 13, 2012: Photo taken on January 20, 2012 shows the snow-covered Seefeld Arena  at the 1st Innsbruck 2012 Youth Olympic Games in Innsbruck, Austria, January 20, 2012.  Ski jumping mixed team competition was postponed due to the weather condition.

Photo by Bai Xuefei/Xinhua/IOC Hand out Photo

EDITORIAL USE ONLY. STRICTLY NO COMMERCIAL USE
Innsbruck, Austria - January 13, 2012: Photo taken on January 20, 2012 shows the snow-covered Seefeld Arena at the 1st Innsbruck 2012 Youth Olympic Games in Innsbruck, Austria, January 20, 2012. Ski jumping mixed team competition was postponed due to the weather condition. Photo by Bai Xuefei/Xinhua/IOC Hand out Photo EDITORIAL USE ONLY. STRICTLY NO COMMERCIAL USE

The 2012 Winter Youth Olympics also didn’t experience the fanfare many in the international sporting community are used to seeing at the Winter Olympic Games. There was very little broadcasting of the first Winter Youth Olympics, which limited the amount of attention given to the event by international sports fans, and subsequently affected interest in future editions of the sporting event.

However, it should be noted that the IOC has grown along with the Winter Youth Olympics in this respect. The most recent edition of the Winter Youth Olympics in Lausanne achieved record digital coverage and engagement according to the IOC, with Olympic Broadcast Systems (OBS) taking on the role of host broadcaster for the first time.

Lausanne 2020 also saw a successful trial the IOC’s new “two-wave” system of housing athletes, allowing for an increase in athlete quotas, which in turn lead to greater opportunities for athletes.

The legacy of the Winter Youth Olympics is complex, with the recency of the first edition making it difficult to fully judge the impact of the youthful multi-sports games.

Nonetheless, athletes preparing to compete in Beijing have spoken positively about the Winter Youth Olympics, claiming that the event helped prepare them for future Olympic endeavors.

Summer Britcher, a gold medalist in the luge team relay at Innsbruck 2012, stated, “going to the Youth Olympics when I was seventeen was such a cool experience. I almost wasn’t prepared for how much that prepared me for Sochi.”

Luge - 2020 FIL World Luge Championships - Women's Single - Sliding Center Sanki, Sochi, Russia - February 15, 2020   Summer Britcher of the U.S. reacts at the end of her run    REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko
Luge - 2020 FIL World Luge Championships - Women's Single - Sliding Center Sanki, Sochi, Russia - February 15, 2020 Summer Britcher of the U.S. reacts at the end of her run REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

“I got to Sochi and the whole onboarding process, the whole security, the way you’re living in a village with other athletes that you wouldn’t normally train or compete with; athletes from other sports, the whole scene; the whole process was so similar and it is a huge sporting event.”

“To be a part of that massive, like ‘all the eyes are on you,’ event, which we don’t normally get in our sport at the youth and junior level, was such great preparation. I’m really glad that I had that experience.”

She added, “The only thing I could say is if they have it expanded so there was the opportunity for all athletes coming up to go to the Youth Olympics; that would be great.”

“It’s this lucky wave of a few that even have the chance to go to the Youth Olympics.”

Fellow American slider, Ashley Farquharson, who was in attendance at the 2016 Winter Youth Olympics in Lillehammer, commented, “from what I’ve heard from Summer [Britcher] and Tucker [West] is that the one I went to in Lillehammer 2016 was even more like the actual [Olympic] Games then theirs was, which was the first one, so of course it’s going to get better and bigger.”

She added, “I don’t really know what to expect from Beijing, but I do think that [Lillehammer 2016] prepared me for it.”

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