Selfies and the Youth Olympic Games future


In American teen parlance, the word “tryhard” is a noun. It means when someone tries hard to appear a certain way but all that effort does is make that someone all the more contrived. Here is how to use “tryhard”: when the president of the International Olympic Committee posed with a group of young athletes for a staged selfie shot in the opening ceremony of the Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China, over the weekend, the IOC was being such a tryhard.

The disconnect this moment illustrates is so profound that, in a way, it’s almost a good thing that it happened.

Young athletes taking a selfie with IOC president Thomas Bach at the Youth Olympic Games opening ceremony // photo Getty Images

Because, if the Youth Games really are going to stick around, and that is a serious question for debate, this can be the moment everyone can look at and go, OK, let’s see if we can go forward from here and find something actually authentic that might actually speak to young people instead of trying to manufacture something.

To start from the very top:

There is no question the Olympic movement needs to reach out to young people, especially teens. Everyone in a position of authority within the movement agrees about that.

The issue is whether the Youth Olympic Games is the means and method by which to do so.

It is by no means a sure thing that the Youth Games is a viable concept.

I wrote as much in 2007 when, at its all-members assembly in Guatemala, the IOC authorized the idea in the first instance.

I was in Singapore, a mentor for the inaugural Young Reporters program, for the first edition of the Youth Games, and though the organization of those Games was by every important measure a success, the fundamental problems confronting the Youth Olympic Games then are still the same challenges now, and they are going to be the same going forward.

One, the sports calendar is already completely overloaded. This year, just as it was in 2010 and just as it will be in 2018, we have already had the Winter Olympics and Paralympics; the soccer World Cup; and the Commonwealth Games. Now YOG?

At some point, fatigue sets in. People are, like, what, another multi-sport event?

Beyond which, it’s August. Around the world, soccer — and, in the United States, football — season is starting up again. That’s what most people will tend to care about now for the next several months.

Two, is YOG a kumbaya session in which teens ages 14 to 18 are immersed in “the themes of culture, education and friendship,” or a mini-Olympics? The IOC is trying to have it both ways, stressing the former in its official release but, of course, awarding medals. This is a muddle, and muddles are never good.

Three, while the IOC under the new president, Thomas Bach, is stressing sustainability and legacy, the opening ceremony in Nanjing was thoroughly over-the-top, as absolutely — after the display in Beijing in 2008 — could have been expected from our Chinese friends. If you are Buenos Aires, site of the 2018 Youth Olympics, what are you thinking after watching that ceremony? How do we top that? Should we even try?

Four, and the biggest problem, YOG simply doesn’t do what it is supposed to do. The idea is to connect with teens. How, exactly? Big picture: the Olympic scene is a made-for-TV spectacle. YOG is the classic “if a tree falls in the forest, does anybody know about it” deal because hardly anyone sees it on TV, especially not teen-agers.

How would they? YOG’s broadcast reach is hugely limited, especially in major markets. Beyond which, why would teens watch? Who are the personalities? Their back stories?

The IOC wants to believe this is all going to be a social media-driven event.

Gently: we are years away from that.

Maybe we will get there someday. But not now. I remain a huge supporter of the Young Reporter program. As of Monday evening, its Facebook posts were generally reaching 200 to 500 people.

Which brings the circle back around to the on-stage selfie in the opening ceremony.

“Dear young athletes, these are your Games. This is your moment,” Bach said. “So, young athletes, please join me: let us all capture it — so get your smartphones out and let’s set a record for selfies.”

At that, he was joined by five young athletes for his own “YOG selfie,” the IOC reported.

The whole thing evoked the Ellen DeGeneres moment at the Oscars earlier this year.

If one of the young athletes had suggested the selfie, instead of the president, perhaps the moment might have seemed less manufactured.

But, ask yourself — is this something a 15-year-old would do?

Or something that more likely came out of a middle-management brainstorming session? Run by, you know, adults?

I live with three teenagers. Well, technically, two. The older daughter is 20. The boy is 17. The younger daughter is 15, headed toward her sophomore year in high school. Because she has an older sister who is going to be a junior in college, the younger one knows a lot of stuff.

Essentially, the 15-year-old is the IOC YOG target audience.

She lives on her phone, “talking” incessantly with her friends and her sister on Snapchat. They are on Facebook and on Instagram. Twitter, not so much.

Teenagers do not take selfies with, as they describe them, “old people.”

Who is an “old person”? Me, for one.

As the 15-year-old said, “How old is old? When they have visible wrinkles.”

Has the IOC yet figured out that, especially in this context, teenage girls are the knowers of all things? Or at least all relevant things?

Suddenly, she and all her friends are busy — like seemingly everyone in the United States on social media — taking the ALS ice-bucket challenge. She did so Sunday and immediately — to stress, immediately — put video of it up on Facebook, cautioning me that I was not allowed to “like” it until she got a certain number of likes from her friends first because that would not be cool. As for the Youth Games? A world away. Whatever.

Has the IOC, you know, convened focus groups of teen girls to figure out the Youth Games?

The 15-year-old asked, reasonably enough, “Why is there a Youth and a Junior Olympics?” A lot of her friends are geeked up about the possibility of taking part in the JO’s. YOG? What?

Also, the word “Youth.” That, she said, “sounds like it should be for 8-year-olds,” and she is right, because “youth” is not a word that, especially in American English, people use in everyday speech. It just isn’t. It’s stilted.

This is the overarching problem with the Youth Olympic Games. There are so many disconnects on so many levels.

Bach’s “Olympic Agenda 2020” review and potential reform process, headed toward an all-members session in Monaco in December, is supposed to be heavy on what to do about engaging tomorrow’s audience.

The IOC needs to give serious deliberation to the notion about whether hundreds of millions of dollars for a Youth Olympic Games, Summer and Winter, is legitimately the way to go. For a fraction of that money, Michael Phelps, who was a 2010 YOG ambassador, and Chad le Clos, who is a 2014 ambassador, can make a lot of appearances, and reach a lot of teens.

You can make the argument that the modern Olympic Games, launched in Athens in 1896, took a few cycles to gain sound footing.

You can counter, however, that back then the Games had the luxury of time. The world we live in now doesn’t have that luxury. Things are too expensive and move too fast.

Today’s teens have far too many choices. Why should they not only check out but stay tuned in to a Youth Olympic Games? The IOC has to give them not only reason but exciting reason. What is that going to be? Without that, can the IOC articulate good reason for the Youth Games to keep on keeping on?