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A towering flame was lit in the heart of Singapore on Saturday, signaling the start of the inaugural Youth Olympics.
IOC President Jacques Rogge said the event would inspire young people around the world to take up sport but also teach them the importance of fair play, teamwork and living healthy lives.
A jubilant crowd of 27,000 packed a stadium overlooking Singapore’s Marina Bay to cheer on the 3,600 athletes from 204 countries as they made their way across a huge outdoor stage.
The ceremony was filled with fireworks, towering puppets and colorful dance performances that emphasized the youthful theme of the games while showcasing Singapore’s transformation from a dreary trading port to a modern metropolis.
“We open a new chapter in the history of the Olympic Movement,” Rogge told the crowd. “From this moment on, young people around the world have a chance to participate in a global event that combines sport, education and culture.”
The Youth Olympics officially starts Sunday with the women’s triathlon. It will continue for 12 days and feature athletes ages 14 to 18 competing in 26 sports.
Hours before the opening ceremony, Rogge said he was “thrilled” with the way Singapore has organized the games in just 2½ years. He said all preparations were complete for the games, although he admitted mistakes will probably be made over the next 12 days that can provide lessons for the future.
“I feel like a father waiting in delivery room for birth to happen,” Rogge said. “I’m optimistic, but I still want to see the baby being born.”
Despite the widespread publicity and optimistic tone from Singapore, the Youth Olympics have struggled to win over fans. Ticket sales have been sluggish despite an $8.9 million government publicity campaign featuring large billboards around the city that encouraged neighborhoods to celebrate the games.
In an online poll last month on Channel NewsAsia’s website aimed at getting a gauge of public interest, 88 percent of 6,400 respondents voted, ‘I’m not interested at all,’ in the games.
There have even been reports that children were forced to attend events ahead of the games, something the organizers have denied.
“There will be stories flying around,” said Ng Ser Miang, chairman of the Singapore Youth Olympic Games Organizing Committee and IOC vice president. “But just look at the faces of the children that are there, the sparkle in their eyes and the smile on their faces. Those are not things you can force. I don’t think anyone will be forced to come to watch the torch relay or the games. So I don’t think there is any coercion.”
Ng also dismissed concerns about cost overruns which have dogged Singapore’s preparations. The IOC initially projected in 2007 the Youth Games would cost $30 million to stage. By the time Singapore won its bid in 2008, the budget was up to $76 million. The government said in July it expects a final bill of $287 million.
“It’s a first Youth Games. The scale and complexity developed as we started to prepare for it,” Ng said. “So many things had to be on the fast track. We have a certain standard of doing things here, and there was an effort to promote Singapore as well.”
Rogge, who is the driving force behind the Youth Olympics, defended the event against complaints it is little more than a summer camp and an unnecessary distraction from existing events like the IAAF World Junior Championships.
He said the Youth Olympics would become an integral part of the Olympic movement, inspire young people to play more sports and provide athletes with something more than competition — including the chance to be mentored by seasoned athletes such as Russian pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva. It will also teach about the perils of doping and adjusting to life after sports.
“The fundamental principle of the Youth Olympic Games is that there was a need to provide education to young people at an age where they are receptive,” Rogge said. “This is a part of the youth population receptive to new concepts. We want to give them skills for later in life.”
Rogge also said he hoped there would be plenty of lessons to come out of the Games, including changing the format of some sports. Three-on-three basketball, a smaller, quick-shooting version, will be played here amid expectations that it could become part of the Summer Olympics.
There is also the emergence of female athletes at the Youth Olympics from conservative Islamic countries, which could signal a change among some governments toward allowing female athletes to compete at international level. Several nations, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar, did not send female athletes to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
Jihan El Midany, for example, is set to make history as the first Egyptian woman to carry the delegation flag at an Olympic event. And if the 18-year-old pentathlete finishes in the top three, she would also be the first woman from her country to win a medal at any Olympics.
Qatar is sending girls to an Olympic competition for the first time, while Iran agreed to send a girls’ soccer team after reaching a compromise that would allow them to wear specially-designed hats rather than the FIFA-banned headscarves during matches.