YOG mixed teams send the right message to teens

YOG mixed teams send the right message to teens
From left: Singapore triathlete Bryce Chong, Boris Teddy of Solomon Islands and Denise Chia, also a local triathlete at the Nanjing Youth Olympic Games.

In the story's simplicity lies its gentle beauty. At the Youth Olympics, a US coach, Ian Murray, reportedly noticed that the bike of Solomon Islands triathlete Boris Teddy with its bent wheel was inadequate. So Murray, who'd carried his own, superior bike to Nanjing, lent it to Teddy.

Take it. Go. Race.

And so Teddy did.

The Youth Olympics has converted me to its cause and not just because of this act of sensitivity and spirit from a stranger.

But because we live in a grotesque time of Malky Mackay, 42, who apparently still thinks using the pejorative "chink" is just fine. Because his alleged e-mails were initially brushed aside as banter by the commonsensically-challenged dinosaurs at the League Managers Association. Because if these are the grown-ups in sport, who are responsible for our 18-year-olds as they set foot into professional arenas, then we're doomed.

Because we need to challenge these lazy attitudes and tiresome stereotypes that pervade sport and the Youth Olympics in a tiny, clever, resolute way is doing so.

They're finding a subtle way to tell kids to be better as grown-up athletes. They're gently taking on the sexism, jingoism and racism that infects fields and arenas. And they're doing it simply by how they structure their teams.

Teddy - much like athletes in 10 other sports - raced in the triathlon mixed relay for a team titled World 2 which included a Bermudian, 16, and two Zimbabweans, both 17. This wasn't a team narrowly defined by borders or passports or religion or class. This was a team where you "try" for your team-mate not because he or she is from your country but because he or she is just your team-mate in the purest sense. The person on your side.

These kids win as the World and they lose as one. Maybe they also find out about each other's worlds, opening themselves to adventure, unlike golfer Bubba Watson who once described Paris' famed museum, the Louvre, as "a building starting with L".

Maybe just connecting on Facebook, as Singapore's Bryce Chong, 16, has done with his triathlete team-mates from China and Japan, is a start. Maybe this way your future rival is still someone you desperately want to beat, but he's no longer demonised as "that foreigner" or "the outsider". Because you know he once was a kid, made of flesh and blood like you, trying to be great.

Teddy doesn't know the extent of his team-mates' skills. Neither does Chong. So they have to adapt. They sit around, says Chong, "sharing different ideas and different strategies" often in languages they don't readily understand. It's how kids learn to listen and be inventive, it's how they learn everyone loves sport but just approaches it differently.

Maybe, in a small way, they begin to appreciate that this difference is essential to sport and also what's beautiful about sport. Teddy watched his team-mates in the triathlon and concluded to The Straits Times that "everyone swim really fast except me". But maybe his team-mates learnt from Teddy, too, when he spoke of training in the ocean since he has no pool. Maybe, as kids, they will start to figure out what hardship means and where privilege lies.

Two of Teddy's team-mates were girls and it's possible he's never had girls as team-mates. Maybe he sees girls differently now, maybe he sees them as tougher, maybe he doesn't even see them just as girls but as fellow competitors. Maybe, competing for a team that was both white and black has ensured, too, that colour doesn't matter to him. All this is what sport was supposed to be, but has never quite become.

One Games can't alter an existing ugly culture, one gathering won't dismantle stereotypes. But sport - of all professions - has to at least aspire for fairness, for the notion of brotherhood, for the idea it stands for something larger and finer than men like Mackay.

This Olympics of the young can leave a modest imprint. It can spark a conversation. It can kindle empathy. It can rouse the better parts of these may-be, would-be athletes. It can, by putting Dou Zecheng of China and Azelia Meichtry of Switzerland together in the same golf team, create a world of fun and make a point.

That diverse geographies and different languages, are in truth just the trivialities of sport. Both spoke golf. It is enough.


This article was first published on August 26, 2014.
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