World class step up
The Youth Commonwealth Games will provide a much-needed step-up for schools athletes to get on to the international sporting stage, say Scottish officials who pronounced this month's inaugural games in Edinburgh an unqualified success.
The games attracted 597 athletes from 15 countries and already three Australian cities - Perth, Adelaide and Brisbane - are bidding to host the next event in 2004 and South Africa has shown an interest in staging the 2008 event.
Eight sports were staged this year: athletics, gymnastics, fencing, weightlifting, swimming, squash, tennis and hockey.
"These sports are not necessarily the ones that will be on offer in Australia in four years' time," says the games' press officer, John Lindsay. "They were chosen because those sports contributed to the cost of staging their event themselves. I should imagine that in 2004 the number of sports will be more than doubled.
"The games were a great success," he continues. "One of the most emotional moments was when a weightlifter from Nauru, a small island republic in the south Pacific of only 9,500 inhabitants, gave his gold medal to a team-mate. Teabuge Gadd won the 62kg category but entered as a guest and was therefore ineligible for the gold medal. Estiit Cook gave up his gold medal to his colleague, which was in the true spirit of the friendly games."
The experience of the event is seen as particularly significant to school-age competitors. Former Scottish international athlete Pat Craig (nee Rollo) wishes there had been a similar competition when she was younger.
"It fills the considerable gap between competing at schools level and senior level, which is a big step," says Mrs Craig, the manager of the Scotland athletics team for the games who is on the Scottish Schools' Athletic Association committee.
"There are competitions such as the World Junior Championships or the European Junior Championships, but these are British teams that are sent and not many Scottish athletes are involved. Scottish internationals are few and far between and it can be a daunting prospect going from schools level to senior competition.
"The SSAA had a big input in the selection of the Scotland team for the games and we saw many of our athletes improve.
"The age-group - 14 to 18 - is not quite in keeping with age-groups in international athletics and we found that a 15-year-old in our team was working with a heavier discus than normal, but it worked out OK."
Mrs Craig, who competed for Scotland in the 1986 Commonwealth games in Edinburgh, also believes that such events give competitors a new perspective.
"It is good for young athlets to get experience of a multi-sport event and living in a games village environment. Even at senior games, some athletes find it difficult to focus on their event because there is so much going on in a village context. This gives schools athletes the chance to taste it for themselves.
"It is also important that they see how other sports are organised and they do not have the tunnel vision that many athletes have."
Paul Bush, Scotland's general team manager for the 2002 Commonwealth games in Manchester, is encouraged by the fact that Scotland won 32 medals at the Youth Games. He believes the event will now gather in strength and says that it is not only good for the competitors, but also for setting up a support structure of management and officials and creating a team environment.
"We're pretty cocooned in the northern hemisphere and we need to see what the likes of Australia and South Africa are doing," says Mr Bush, whose sport is swimming. "I've been to three Commonwealth Games and there is a different atmosphere to the cut and thrust of the Olympics, which is lethal."
Like Pat Craig, he maintains that the step up to senior international events can be seen as too great by schools athletes and can lead to many dropping out of sport when they reach their late teens. "What this has created is an opportunity for 14 to 18-year-olds, who never had such a chance before. Such an experience gives them a taste of what to expect and they will know what competing in a major sporting event is like."
There is an argument, he says, that there is already too much competition for youngsters in an over-crowded fixture list, but he believes that this was a competition of the right kind that fitted in very well with the calendar. He also underlines that the Youth Games were friendly, which is important to emphasise at a time when sport has become so serious.
"There was a cultural element to the games that also made them so successful. It is not only about competition, it is about youngsters' development and giving them a chance to see other cultures," he says. "It was great to see the smiles on the competitors' faces when they went to the Military Tattoo and paraded in front of 8,000 people. It was something I'll never forget."
The athletes also learnt about some of the things that they can expect to encounter if they go on to compete at senior level, he says. There was drugs testing at the Youth Games, for example. "It was good for the youngsters to find out at an early age what they have to adhere to.
"The bonus for us is that we may even see the benefits of the Youth Games as early as Manchester in two years' time when the senior Commonwealth Games are held, and a few athletes who won medals in Edinburgh may be making their mark at senior level."