Hosts take great leap forward

Hosts take great leap forward

AFTER 4½ years of planning and 11 days of competition, the second Youth Olympic Games (YOG) drew to a close last night with the dousing of the Olympic flame atop the Nanjing Olympic Sports Centre.

For the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the past fortnight had helped an event - Singapore hosted the first edition in 2010 - take further root.

For Nanjing, a city which has given much in hosting the world's best young athletes, it has also received much.

The YOG gave Nanjing - about 300km from Shanghai - its day in the sun. No longer was it among a handful of Chinese cities that have always been a distant third behind Beijing and Shanghai in the pecking order.

With the star power of athletes like Lithuanian swimmer Ruta Meilutyte, the world and Olympic champion who saw value in skipping part of the European Championships to be at the YOG, the eyes of the world were trained on Nanjing over the past two weeks.

Due to the unique way in which the Youth Olympics are organised, the 3,800 athletes - including 18 from Singapore - who competed here were able to get up close and personal with the city - and, by extension, the country - in a way that was not seen at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

At the time, elite athletes like the American basketball team were cocooned in a swanky hotel instead of staying in the Olympic village, while others like Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt famously ate nothing but chicken nuggets from an international fast-food joint because he thought Chinese food was "odd".

This time, all athletes stayed in the Youth Olympic village for the whole duration of the Games, regardless of when or for how long they were in action.

Outside of training and competition, free time was spent immersing in Culture and Education Programme activities, perhaps one of the most defining traits of the YOG.

They visited iconic historical sites in Nanjing, like the city wall from the Ming dynasty, and even tried their hands at Chinese painting and the guzheng, a traditional Chinese musical instrument.

Canadian diver Philippe Gagne, for instance, learnt how to write his name in Chinese.

Said the 16-year-old: "Writing Chinese is pretty fun, actually."

This immersion was two-way. It extended beyond the perimeters of the village and into the local schools of the city after they were twinned with a National Olympic Committee, giving young Nanjing children an opportunity to learn about the culture of the region they were paired with, as well as interact with the foreign athletes when they visited.

This emphasis on education, not just for the athletes, but also for the people of the host city, was a feature that left the biggest impression on Wang Juebin, a local who works in media operations.

Said the 26-year-old: "When you have the world's best young athletes here, it's inevitable that there is some level of sporting influence on the locals.

"But the YOG puts a lot more emphasis on getting people active and staying active, and on promoting the spirit of friendship rather than competition.

"That is something that's very different from the Olympics where the focus is often more on results than anything else."

Indeed, no official medal tally was kept during the Games.

The arrival of the YOG in Nanjing also sped up the city's structural development, even as the local organising committee kept to the IOC's policy of running a prudent Games.

Nanjing's budget for hosting the Games is a reported $366 million.

Plans for expanding the city's underground train networks were brought forward by at least a decade, allowing a journey from the city's north to the south that previously took 21/2 hours to be cut to just about 30 minutes.

Post-YOG, residents in the Pukou district will have access to the top-class Youth Olympic Sports Park, after the venue was purpose-built there for the event.

The district was previously the only one in Nanjing that did not enjoy a public sports facility.

In the city centre, Xuanwu Lake was given a face-lift and cleaned up to host the triathlon events.

Said Fang Jing, a 20-year-old undergraduate who lives in south Nanjing: "There never used to be this much greenery here. The city looks much more pleasing to the eye now."

Hopeful that the YOG will give Nanjing a boost towards establishing itself as a major economic centre in China, she added: "It might just be a two-week-long Games but if athletes, officials and the world's spectators leave with a good impression of the city in their hearts, it's also good for Nanjing's future."

Hu Xuebin, an 82-year-old who has lived in Nanjing for the past six decades, would even go as far as predict Nanjing to overtake Shanghai, its richer cousin.

He said: "Some of the places you see now used to be wasteland but it looks so different now.

"The YOG has injected a refreshing spirit to the feel of the city and its people.

"It has been good for us."

Be it in terms of scale or the monetary investment in organising the event, the YOG is a long way away from that of its older and more established cousin, the Summer Olympics.

Nanjing 2014 was never going to beat Beijing 2008 or the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games, for that matter.

But it did not need to be, nor was it seeking to be - Nanjing was always going to be more about friendship and education than rivalry and competition.

As the capital of six ancient dynasties, Nanjing, which has a population of 6.5 million, has long been known as a historical and cultural epicentre.

Local authorities are hoping that sports can now be another identity for the city.

Said organising committee executive president and secretary of the Nanjing municipal committee Yang Weize: "For a city's people to be happy, they must first be healthy.

"We want to build a sporting, happy city so that the spirit of the Youth Olympics can live on."

The next YOG will be held in Buenos Aires in 2018.

This article was first published on August 29, 2014.
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