Mike Rowbottom ©insidethegames

Boys and girls from 32 countries gathered in the Croatian city of Porec earlier this month for the World Schools Basketball Championships, with the action streamed live on the Olympic Channel as well as the site of the sport's world governing body, the International Basketball Federation (FIBA). The event attracted more than 200,000 viewers.

It was the latest example of what the International School Sport Federation (ISF) does - on this occasion in conjunction with the Croatian School Sport Federation.

This is the pattern being established across a range of sports under the dynamic leadership of former physical education teacher and semi-professional footballer Laurent Petrynka, who was voted in as ISF President in 2014, four years after becoming National Director of School Sport in France at the Union Nationale du Sport Scolaire (UNSS).

Petrynka thinks big, and he takes the bold approach of going to the top wherever possible. For example, wearing his UNSS chapeau, he convinced UEFA to get involved on the eve of the 2016 European Football Championships in France with a European Schools Championship in Lille and Lens involving 25 countries.

"Euro 2016 is a first step but the ISF must be able to knock on the doors of the big players at every major world event," he said shortly after taking up his new post.

The Euro 2016 initiative was part of the ISF's Vision 2030 plan, one of the main objectives of which is to be present at major international sporting events. "I try to convince their organisers to set up events, before or after, for the youth," added Petrynka.

Laurent Petrynka is President of the International School Sport Federation ©ISF
Laurent Petrynka is President of the International School Sport Federation ©ISF

As Paris awaits the International Olympic Committee (IOC) vote on September 13 on whether it will be successful in its bid to host the 2024 Olympics and Paralympics, the ISF will be on standby to launch its own long term plans of involvement. "If Paris is elected, the ISF will fully support Paris 2024," is the official view right now.

Last year Petrynka explained to Francs Jeux, the Francophone media site, that the first mission of the ISF was to organise every year 20 School World Championships, on five continents, for young athletes from all over the world.

"In my capacity as President, I also spend a lot of time meeting with Governments to encourage them to give sport a place in their education system," he said. 

"I am an ambassador for the development of sport in school. Not all countries have incorporated this sporting fact. Albania, for example, has just created its first federation of school sport."

In February, Petrynka knocked on the door of arguably the biggest sporting player, the IOC President Thomas Bach. It was clearly a very successful meeting as Petrynka has just been appointed as a member of the IOC Olympic Education Commission and is tasked with a vital new role in attempting to ensure continuity for young people who want to continue sport after they leave school.

Essentially, Bach appreciates the partnerships and initiatives that have been forged between schools and sports federations within the UNSS during Petrynka's stewardship, and wants the French model to become a template for other countries across the world. In striving to encourage this globally, Petrynka sees the ISF as "a bridge" over which future generations of young people may cross from sport at school to sport for the rest of their lives.

"I am honoured to be part of the IOC Commission," he said. "I will learn a lot from being there because there are some hugely experienced individuals involved.

"This means above all a real recognition of the work undertaken within the ISF, since we have been working with the IOC for a number of years and are now recognised as an International Federation in its own right.

"I believe that one of our major subjects will be to think about how to bring the Olympic Committees and National Federations closer to the schools."

Speaking of his visit to Lausanne in February, Petrynka told insidethegames: "My appointment to the Commission was a political decision that followed the discussions I had with Thomas Bach.

"It was clear in that meeting that we shared the same overall outlook on the position of school sport worldwide. At the moment we really need to improve the sporting practice of the young generation from a quantitative and qualitative perspective.

Laurent Petrynka, left, with IOC President Thomas Bach in Lausanne at their February meeting. They share a vision for future global school sport ©ISF
Laurent Petrynka, left, with IOC President Thomas Bach in Lausanne at their February meeting. They share a vision for future global school sport ©ISF

"We shared the same perception that the young generation was exercising less and less. After the age of 14, sporting activity decreases very rapidly for too many young people. It is an alarming situation.

"The opportunity we have at the ISF stems from this: 100 per cent of the young generation are at school, not just in Europe but globally. This is where we have the chance to share the same goal of making it clear that practicing sports at schools is very important. But what is the best way of doing this?"

Petrynka believes there are two worlds existing next to each other - National Sport Federations and Ministries in charge of education. They sometimes collaborate, he says, but often ignore each other or sometimes even feel competitive.

"It's a challenge," he said. "This will probably also involve a greater collaboration between the IOC and the ISF, so that we can promote this cooperation.

"There are two cultures involved here, education and sport. Ministries of Education are concerned with curriculum and overall standards. Some consider sport as being important, but some do not. It depends on the country.

"And these Ministries are often criticised by those in national sports federations for not being sufficiently supportive. But the Ministries are often critical of the sports federations.

"The big challenge remains to form a bridge between Ministries of Education and national sports federations, to ensure that these two worlds can speak to each other in a better way.

"When I meet with representatives of Ministries of Education they consider that they have a better approach to sports than the national federations, and I say this is not always so.

"It's the same when I speak to members of national federations - they often believe their Ministry of Education is bad for school sports, and I tell them that is also not the case.

"I think this mutual criticism is not the best basis for good discussions that are so important for the future of the young. We must try to reach a position of mutual respect in order to ensure that the young generation have a good balance between education and sport.

The ISF organises World Schools Championships in a wide range of sports all over the world ©ISF
The ISF organises World Schools Championships in a wide range of sports all over the world ©ISF

"President Bach and I share a vision that the two parties involved must try to understand each other better. 

"There needs to be a rapprochement. In my discussion with him I proposed that I would work for that."

The other key task with which Bach has charged Petrynka and his organisation is to try and create the kind of interdependence within school sport worldwide that has already been established in France.

At the top of the UNSS website, the counter registering student licenses - effectively permits for exercise - is in steady movement. The total at the time of writing was 1,140,984. By the time of reading, who knows…

"When youngsters leave school at 18, they disappear as far as we are concerned," Petryka says. "So our challenge is to ensure that they continue to be involved in sport, and to receive the best possible coaching and support.

"So we have to be the bridge between each Ministry of Sport and the national federations in order for that progress to be smooth.

"The UNSS is the perfect body to work in collaboration with national sports federations and we have agreed more than 20 conventions since I became President of UNSS in 2010.

"For example, through this collaboration we are able to offer young people taking up membership of UNSS an automatic free membership to sports clubs. So that after doing their school sports on a Wednesday they can go for free and take part in events organised by the national sports federations at the weekends.

"When I spoke with President Bach, he said we must use this template throughout the Olympic Movement to ensure the sporting participation of future generations.

"We have five main stakeholders involved in school sport - the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Sports, the National Olympic Committee, the National Sports Federations and the National School Sport Federation.

"So in each country we want to do the same thing, to have close collaboration between the five national stakeholders, with the IOC effectively overseeing the efforts.

"For its part, the ISF will be working on sports calendars, communications, and - crucially - collaborating with teaching the teachers themselves to deliver sports lessons with greater quality."

The jewel in the ISF crown continues to be the Gymnasiade, the multi-sport event last held in Turkey in 2016. But this is a dynamic sporting landscape.

The Gymnasiade, which centres on swimming, athletics and gymnastics, is the jewel in the ISF crown, involving more than 3,000 schoolchildren from around the world ©ISF
The Gymnasiade, which centres on swimming, athletics and gymnastics, is the jewel in the ISF crown, involving more than 3,000 schoolchildren from around the world ©ISF

"Since I was elected President of the ISF in 2014 I have worked hard at new collaborations with a variety of sports," Petrynka said.

"Recently, for instance, we signed an agreement with FIBA, the world governing body for basketball, which supplied all the referees for our recent World Schools Championship of Basketball in Croatia.

"FIBA have also helped us with teaching sessions, which have been very successful. And by putting a live stream of the action on the FIBA website and the Olympic Channel, we have found a great way of highlighting the School Championships and encouraging interest in basketball within schools - a win-win situation.

"We are looking at doing the same thing with orienteering, volleyball - we are working now with the International Volleyball Federation - triathlon, where we have been in contact with International Triathlon Union President Marisol Casado, and judo, where we have made an agreement with the President of the International Judo Federation, Marius Vizer.

"I hope that we will be able to do the same thing for the athletics event we are holding in Nancy in June. 

"Unlike football tournaments, which are spread over many pitches, athletics competitions are compact and easier to televise.

"We signed our agreement with the Olympic Channel a month ago to broadcast some of our upcoming events. They will show footage of different sports. The goal is for the Channel to be the global umbrella for sport.

"We are also discussing with the Olympic Channel the idea of concentrating on future generations of potential Olympians. We already have a number of Olympians who started off at the Gymnasiade. So maybe we will have this kind of story focusing on individual sportsmen and women and their stories."

Among those who have made this sporting transition are Ekaterini Stefanidi of Greece, who won the Olympic pole vault title in Rio last year, Hugues Duboscq, the French swimmer who took 100 metre breaststroke bronze at Athens 2004 and 100 and 200m breaststroke bronze at Beijing 2008, and Amaury Leveaux, the French swimmer who won gold in the 4x100m relay freestyle at the London 2012 Games.

Others to have hit the sporting heights include French basketball player Nicolas Batum, who represents his national team and is an NBA player with the Charlotte Hornets, and Italian long jumper Andrew Howe, silver medallist at the 2007 International Association of Athletics Federations World Championships and the European outdoor and indoor champion in 2006 and 2007 respectively.

Such transformations are not what the ISF is about, although they certainly represent feathers in the cap.

The main business relates to improving the sporting opportunities of successive swathes of young sportsmen and women. And one wonders how Petrynka sets about maintaining or improving the level of school sport internationally, given that many countries have either reduced their investment in it or never bothered to put any money in in the first place.

Action from this month's World School Basketball Championships was streamed live on the Olympic Channel and the website of the world governing body, FIBA ©ISF
Action from this month's World School Basketball Championships was streamed live on the Olympic Channel and the website of the world governing body, FIBA ©ISF

"We have two policies on this subject," he responds. "Firstly, I take a lot of time going to different countries and meeting those in authority. When I went to Taiwan I spoke to the vice president. When I was in Albania I met the Prime Minister. I insist whenever I can on speaking to those at the top of the Government.

"Attitudes to funding school sport vary dramatically throughout the world. In Brazil, for instance, support is very developed. School sports are supported by the national lottery. But in some other countries they don't even put one euro towards school sports development.

"Apart from trying to influence those at the top of Governments, we have a second strategy to stimulate interest and support for school sports which is to implement big school sports events in countries.

"Our main event, the Gymnasiade, will be held next year for the first time in Africa, where it will be hosted by Rabat. There have been discussions about this at the highest level in Morocco, as you can imagine.

"It will be an event involving up to 3,000 young people from all around the world, and we hope it will help in the delivery of school sports across the African continent. We have already held a first meeting in Rabat of school sports teachers.

"Clearly, when a country hosts a big event such as this, the question in mind is how its own competitors will fare, and that encourages Governments to develop their physical education in schools. So getting countries to host events is one of our principal methods of creating new frontiers for school sport in Africa, Asia and parts of eastern Europe.

"In Britain the system for school sport is different. If you want to set up a competition there you must talk to each of the individual sports federations, whether it is football, rugby or athletics. And that is not always so easy."

None of Petrynka's work appears easy, to be honest. But his energy and idealism appear to offer the best chance for a generation of schoolchildren to embrace exercise in youth, and later life.