(ATR) The first Olympic Youth Development Center opens in Zambia as the prototype for the Sports for Hope program initiated by IOC President Jacques Rogge.
About 600 young athletes tried out the state-of-the-art facilities in the northern part of Lusaka, Zambia's capital city, on Tuesday.
Some were in awe of their good fortune.
"We never had turf like this," Floyd Chomba said of the artificial turf on the hockey pitch.
"We couldn't really practice like we were supposed to. Because of the fields, we can show our best talent."
That's what Rogge had in mind three years ago when Zambia was selected as the pilot program for Sports for Hope. Rogge wanted to bring world-class sports facilities to emerging nations.
Zambia, which was supposed to host the 2011 All-Africa Games, was a logical choice among several continental candidates. Although Zambia had to withdraw from hosting the multi-sport event because of the economic crisis, the IOC stuck with plans to build the $10.3 million center.
"This is not just a national center for elite athletes," Rogge said. "We are confident it will become the center for regional and even international competitions. And perhaps just as important, it will be a center for sports and services for the local community. On this success, we hope to build similar centers in other regions around the world."
The next Olympic Youth Development Centre will likely be in the Americas.
Rogge joined Rupiah Bwezani Banda, president of the Republic of Zambia, for the ribbon-cutting ceremony as more than 2,000 people visited the center. Workmen were still watering and shoveling mud to get everything ready as the guests arrived.
The center has soccer and hockey fields, a track and courts that can be used for basketball, netball and volleyball. The facility also includes a boxing ring and a multi-purpose building. There are classrooms, a library and a room full of computers to help provide a wide range of educational programs such as HIV and child abuse. Health services, including vision and dental care, and community activities will also be offered.
The OYDC Zambia is collaboration between the IOC, which led the project, the Zambian government, which donated the land, and six international federations. The IFs of athletics, basketball, boxing, weightlifting, handball and hockey helped to develop the sports facilities, arranged for the equipment and offered technical expertise and funding.
"Our youth should be proud they have a facility of this magnitude," said Kenneth Chipungu, Minister of Sport, Youth and Child Development.
Banda noted that 68 percent of the Zambian people are under age 35 and said his government has "prioritized investment in sports."
"Zambia stands at a time in history when sport is now internationally recognized as an effective means to achieve developmental goals," Banda said.
IOC Members, Federation Leaders Out in Force
IOC member Patrick Chamunda beamed with pride as dignitaries toured the center in his home country.
"This is a realization of a dream for most of us, particularly for the young people that will have access to these facilities," he said.
Other IOC members in attendance included Frank Fredericks of Namibia, Sam Ramsamy of South Africa, Lamine Diack of Senegal (IAAF president), C.K. Wu of Chinese Taipei (international boxing president) and Patrick Baumann of Switzerland (secretary general of the basketball federation).
Federation leaders included Leandro Negre, president of international hockey, Hassan Moustafa, president of international handball and Marius Vizer, international judo president.
"I think it's a very worthwhile project," Fredericks said. "If you look at the powerful nations in terms of the medal tally and you look at where they come from, everyone has a facility they can call a home for sports. It's very important having a center like this gives not just Zambia hope, but also the whole region in Africa because all of us can know that there is a facility that we can go to train our athletes. I hope they can come up with a good cooperation between Zambia and the neighboring countries. But it's critical for Zambia."
Zambia has won only two Olympic medals, a bronze from boxer Keith Mwila in 1984 and a silver from 400-meter hurdler Samuel Matete in 1996.
Negre said it was important to bring hockey to Africa for his sport to grow.
"I think this is a fantastic step forward just to the level of hockey in this region," he said. "I think hockey has to develop in all continents. Africa is one of the weakest. I think projects like this help our development."
The synthetic hockey pitch is sand-based, not water based, which helps with maintenance. The soccer field is grass.
"If they see our pitch compared to the soccer one, they'll stay with our sport," Negre said.
Wu said AIBA is looking to participate in programs relating to youth sport development.
"African has produced many good boxers, but just needs more government support, more funding and also more good coaches and trainers consenting to help," he said.
"With the training center in Zambia, it suddenly provides a very good platform for these developing programs and gives the young boxers a good opportunity to practice and to learn."
Center to Start Slowly
The OYDC will officially open on June 1. Schools will have programs in cooperation with the center, and talented athletes also will be identified through their national federations. The staff includes eight people in programming and 12 in maintenance, according to Clement Chileshe, the consultant who is Project Manager Operations for Sports for Hope.
"I feel this is going to be a route for changing lives in young people," Chileshe said.
Rogge said that sport strengthens the body and the mind, integrates people into society and teaches respect for rules.
"It brings hope, it brings a dream, it brings joy and for the nation, it allows for identification and a lot of pride," he said.
"That's the reason why we built this center."
Reporting, writing and photographyby Karen Rosen in Lusaka.
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