With all the economic and social upheaval currently lashing Argentina, to all intents and purposes the past month appeared a singularly unfortunate time to hold a festival of world sport. But the 2018 Youth Olympic Games has brought a smile to the face of Buenos Aires of late, as thousands of budding sporting hopefuls came together for two weeks of thrilling action across the capital.
“Feel the future,” was Buenos Aires’ motto for the Games, and that sentiment was echoed throughout. October 12’s opening ceremony set the tone from the off: instead of the confined reaches of one of the Olympic stadiums, the decision was made to take the Games to the very heart of the city, the iconic Obelisk monument, with an estimated 200,000 people making their way downtown to take in a night-time spectacle led by Argentina’s famous performance artists Fuerza Bruta.
“We wanted to do something different and we had the idea of making a participative, inclusive ceremony,” President of the Argentine Olympic Committee Gerardo Werthein explained. “We decided the ceremony should be in the street, with a 360° concept and that it should be a ceremony in which both athletes and the people were participants and the creators of Argentina’s success.”
That spirit of inclusion, a staple of the Olympic ethos, continued throughout the games. As well as the more traditional disciplines, sports such as beach handball, futsal and sport climbing were included for the first time.
In all, close to a million spectators flocked through the gates of the Olympic Park and other venues to watch competitors aged between 15 and 18 face each other, who were housed in the Olympic Village, located in the neighbourhood of Villa Soldati, that after the Games will be converted into affordable housing for residents of one of Buenos Aires’ most impoverished zones.
It was a massive organisational task, even more so given recent troubles with the devalued Argentine peso, but those in charge proved themselves more than equal to the challenge.
International Olympic Committee (IOC) chief Thomas Bach, when asked to rate the Games out of 10, gave Argentina 11. “These Games have surpassed all our expectations. We did not expect so much success,” he enthused. “We made it more urban, with greater female participation, but the atmosphere, the quality of the Village and the fans, in every sense, it has all surpassed our expectations.”
“This has been an enormous effort over many years, with many people who thought responsibly of how it would turn out well,” added Alejandro Liftschitz, the director of communications for the Buenos Aires 2018 organising committee. “We are very satisfied with the work carried out and we have received feedback at an international level that has left us very pleasantly surprised.”
On the sporting side, too, Argentina has a great deal to be proud of. The country’s athletes picked up a total of 11 gold medals, six silvers and nine bronze, placing it a laudable sixth overall in the table.
Of particular note were the exploits of Fausto Ruesga, a young basketball prospect for Bahía Blanca’s Olimpo. Ruesga tied a national record held by Javier Mascherano when he picked up two gold medals at the Games, forming part of Argentina’s successful basketball team before also taking the prize in the slam dunk competition.
While in the Youth Games individual and collective awards of course take second place behind fostering the spirit of international solidarity and togetherness, those in charge of honing young talent will be delighted with the performances shown by their charges across the two weeks.
There was a tragic side to the Games, however. The world of basketball and sport in general was shaken by the news that International Basketball Federation (FIBA) secretary general and IOC member Patrick Baumann had passed away in Buenos Aires in the middle of the Olympics aged just 51, after suffering a heart attack. “It is a great shock which has hit us very hard,” Bach lamented. “We are losing a young leader full of hope who symbolised the future of his sport. Our thoughts are with his wife, children and family.”
Werthein also mourned his colleague, who had been tipped to be a future IOC chief, stating that “Patrick was a brilliant sporting official and a great person. I had the honour of being considered his friend. We are saddened by his sudden loss.”
The Olympic flame was finally extinguished on Thursday, putting an end to 12 days of competition and spectacle that captured the hearts of people in Buenos Aires and across the world. Argentina’s hero Ruesga was entrusted with handing the flame over to a delegation from Senegal, who will host the next Youth Olympics in 2022.
The last word was had by Bach, who once more saluted an “incredible festival of sport” after a fortnight of tirelessly overseeing events in the city accompanied by Werthein and scores of volunteers who helped to make the event an unqualified success.
The IOC chief also let slip that Buenos Aires could be in the running to host the senior Games in 2032. From the evidence of the last fortnight there is no doubt whatsoever that the city would relish the opportunity to show itself off in front of the world once again.