YOG gamble for S’pore

Sharanjit Leyl
BBC News

The first ever Youth Olympic games opened in Singapore this weekend with an elaborate ceremony featuring over 7,000 young performers dancing on a floating platform and several fireworks displays over the course of the two hour show.

It’s the first new Olympic-branded event since the winter games made its debut 86 years ago.

The event features around 3,600 athletes aged between 14 to 18 from 204 countries.

They will compete in the same 26 sports that are represented in the current summer Olympics.

‘Once in a lifetime’

The games were the brainchild of the President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Jacques Rogge, who said before the opening ceremony on Saturday that he felt like an expectant father awaiting the birth of a child.

It was a culmination of his long-term desire to create a global sporting event for young people.

For athletes like 15-year old Jeffrey Lightfoot, who was one of the torchbearers, it’s a chance to fulfil a childhood goal.

The aptly named Lightfoot is the captain of the Singapore youth football team. He has been playing soccer competitively since he was seven.

“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” he says.

“It’s a very rare chance to be playing for Singapore and playing for these big Youth Olympic games, because you can only go to the Youth Olympics once in your life.”

Budget questions

But behind the hopes of the young athletes are worries over mounting costs and how much interest there would be in these new games.

Singapore won the bid to host the games in a tight race with Moscow more than two years ago, and the government has spent nearly $290m (£186m) on them.

That’s three times above the original budget of around $90m which was submitted to the IOC.

It’s sparked criticism on internet blogs, one of the few places Singaporeans can voice their frustrations within the tightly-controlled city-state.

The government minister in charge of spending on the games, Vivian Balakrishnan, is unapologetic.

“If I could rewind time, with the benefit of hindsight, I should have budgeted a larger amount in the first place,” he says.

“But the real question is if I knew that it was going to cost this amount, would I still have proceeded to bid for the games? The answer is a definite ‘yes’.”

Mr Balakrishnan, the Minister of Community Development, Youth and Sports sees it as a chance to extend Singapore’s image as an efficient globally connected city.

“I think this is not a trifling amount,” he admits.

“But it is an amount that will give us value for money in terms of positioning ourselves, in terms of marketing ourselves, in terms of making sure we are on everyone’s radar screen the next time they make an investment decision, the next time they decide to site an international or regional headquarters or the next time they decide to expand their business.”

Slow sponsor take-up

But, unlike the summer Olympics where the numbers of viewers tuning in from all around the world is more or less known, the fact it is the first time the Youth Olympic games are being held means a risk for both governments and sponsors undertaking the cost.

Ng Ser Miang, the chairman of the Singapore Youth Olympics Organising Committee admits that it was a struggle at first to find companies to spend the money because the games are a first.

“In the case of sponsors, it was slow in the take-up,” he says.

“But I think once they know the concept and they understand what these youth Olympics games is all about, we had a good response.

“We managed to raise about 60 million Singapore dollars and I think what is good is that they agree that this is a case where they should promote the games more than their own products.”

And that is precisely what a number of the sponsors have done.

‘Out on a limb’

Coca Cola says it the longest serving continuous corporate sponsor of the main Olympic Games.

And according to its public affairs director in Singapore, June Kong-Dhanabalan, the goal of the company is to “help raise the awareness and excitement of the games and make some genuine consumer connections”.

For the Youth Olympics, Coca Cola has provided cash and products – including more than 1.5 million cans and bottles of its various beverages.

Ms Dhanabalan adds that Coca Cola stands behind the Singaporean organising committee’s decision in going “out on a limb”.

No targets

Also going out on a limb with these new games is Procter & Gamble.

Unlike Coca Cola, they are a new sponsor, having just signed up with the IOC in a 10-year deal last month.

But they had some prior experience, sponsoring Team America at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver this year.

Marc Pritchard, P&G’s global branding chief, says that campaign brought in $100m of extra sales for their products, a number which met with their targets.

However they, like other sponsors, will not disclose how much was spent.

Nonetheless, he does not expect the firm to generate as large a sum from the Youth Olympics and has set no targets.

For these games, they have sponsored 25 mothers of young Olympic athletes from around the world, helping with their travel and lodging costs.

‘Strategic sponsorship’

No money exchanged hands in the case of Pico, a local events management company that helped set up the many venues being used for the games, including the floating stage for the opening ceremony.

Pico did not pay a fee to be one of the games’ sponsors, but did some of their contracted work for free.

“We being a home-grown Singapore company, we want to show that we are a player in this industry,” says Jean Chia, the managing director.

“So it is a strategic sponsorship for us because we want to be associated with the Olympic games as well as the Olympic spirit.”

It is that spirit that Singapore’s government is hoping to will capture audiences around the world.

Minister Balakrishnan admits that being the first to host the games is not without its risk.

“We will have to prove that we made the right decision over the next two weeks.”