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August 04, 2020

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With an ambitious tagline of “Go beyond. Create tomorrow” Lillehammer 2016 can already satisfy itself with having achieved the first half of its promise. The second half will still need others to follow what was undoubtedly a great example.

In going beyond, Lillehammer 2016 innovated in overdue ways. Blending sport, culture and education to create a coherent festival atmosphere throughout the Winter Youth Olympic Games (YOG) was the Norwegian organisers’ most notable success. It wasn’t easy. It was important.

The SjoggPark saw Lillehammer’s main green (or rather white) space become a hub of physical play, culture and education. Happy kids headed down ice slides in minus five degree weather as parents checked out the film festival or igloo disco.

At the Tyrili climbing centre, our own Sjoggfest venue, parents happily left their kids outside to play at our upcycled obstacle park while they headed inside to hear a carefully curated programme of storytellers, often joining their children to play before heading home.

Ensuing opportunities for Olympic spectators to try the sports they come to watch is a Lillehammer innovation set to stay. Seeing the eyes of kids light up during our parkour demonstrations was one thing. Seeing the smiles when we invited kids and parents alike to come and join in was quite another. And noticing the joyful pride on parents’ faces once coaching was underway moved more than one of our group to tears.

This was also the moment that resonated most with our partner, Ubisoft, with whom we have sought to develop the positive link between the way people move around imagined and real environments. Treated respectfully, experiences like those of our participants prove to be a source of powerful content for broadcasters and social media coverage of future Games.

The link between elite sporting events and mass participation is more easily made when the format on the field more closely resembles the games children play. Often this can and should be non-competitive. Perhaps the highest compliment parkour was paid last week came from IOC Member Barry Maister who wryly commented: “That doesn’t look like sport. That looks like kids having fun.”

We should all look to promote a lifetime of engagement, though, and not just a shareable moment. Beyond the chance to first try a sport at a venue, there must also be a clear pathway to longer-term participation. Such pathways are more easily achieved by repeating activities from the sports venues within an ongoing festival.

Working daily with eagerly returning participants in Lillehammer, we were able to help a core group of kids make huge progress in parkour in just a week. Our coaches took them from a controlled indoor environment to a freer outdoor environment and then out to spots around town, where we are confident they will form the nucleus of a new community.

For the younger kids who joined us last week, many parents are already making a dent in Norway’s pallet problem, now building backyard obstacle parks: new worlds in which to move and imagine.

Lillehammer’s creation of a coherent festival to accompany within an Olympic property was long awaited. During the lead-up to London 2012, University of Canterbury Christ Church professor Mike Weed first identified two drivers for engagement with major sports events. The “demonstration” effect is quite straightforward. Those of us with an affinity to playing sport are inclined to participate more when seeing others perform well.

For those who no longer have such an affinity (the majority of Western adults), a more sophisticated “festival” effect must be harnessed. Sport, culture, community, education: all must be lovingly mixed. The resulting mashup also seems to be the best way to engage and excite a new generation around sport amid an always-on, constantly-changing stream of influences.

Transferring Lillehammer’s festival success and its “Learn and share” activations should be straightforward for future editions of YOG. And there should be future editions. The scale of future festival elements, however, will be an important question for Olympic hosts to resolve.

Lillehammer’s intimate physical space and the small numbers of participants at YOG meant activities could be seamlessly located alongside each other. There was none of the crowd management common to theme parks or mega events.

But while it may be easier to manage a few vast live sites during the Olympic Games, a much larger number of much smaller community events and sites seems set to have the best chance of delivering behavioural change in support of sport and its values.

Looking at early proposals from the 2024 Olympic candidates, there seems to be scope for some improvement. So far, the bids have mainly viewed competitions sitting next to new or existing arts festivals and cultural programmes, instead of YOG’s happy mashup. Submission deadlines unfortunately prevented bidders learning from Lillehammer in person. They would do well to study the Norwegian example.