The COVID-19 pandemic has been the mother of invention with regard to sporting initiatives this year - and the impending United Through Sports (UTS) Virtual Youth Festival 2020, the finals of which start on November 20, will be a uniquely ingenious and historic event.
The Festival will bring Olympic and non-Olympic sports together under the patronage of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), International Paralympic Committee, Special Olympics, SportAccord and the Global Association of International Sports Federations.
And that range of support is unprecedented according to Stephan Fox, President of the Alliance of Independent recognised Members of Sport (AIMS) and of UTS, which was founded by AIMS in 2017.
“This is the first time that the IOC, the IPC and the Special Olympics have all been patronising and a part of the same event,” Fox told insidethegames.
The first UTS Sports Festival took place at SportAccord 2018, held in Bangkok, and last year the event was hosted on Australia’s Gold Coast.
This year the pandemic has caused a major re-think - and the world of sport has found a way forward that will enable young people from around the world, many of whom are living in poor conditions and refugee camps, to converge in an event that will be virtually hosted in Thailand but widely accessible online.
More than 70 organisations - including many International Federations - have been working together to bring a digital platform to qualification events taking place over the last three months.
“They have provided the technical needs for the kids, to make sure they have access to internet and are connected,” Fox said. “So for instance kids in refugee camps in Sudan, they can participate in this event.”
The Opening Ceremony on November 20, corresponds with the United Nations’ World Children’s Day, with finals continuing until the Closing Ceremony on November 22.
The hybrid event will include a range of different sporting competitions, virtual medal ceremonies, and virtual education including an opening conference, webinars, panel discussions and workshops.
The Festival will include those with different mental and physical abilities, involving young people from migrant and refugee backgrounds, from the indigenous community and from vulnerable backgrounds.
A former world champion in Muaythai - sometimes referred to as Thai Boxing - the German-born Fox oversees the amateur and professional development of this combat sport as general secretary of the International Federation of Muaythai Amateur and vice-president of the World Muaythai Council.
But for the moment this ebullient character is focusing his energies on the impending Festival.
“United Through Sports is an alliance of many organisations working together towards common goals, situating the youth of the world as the centrepiece,” he said. “We strongly believe that every child should have a place and the right to play.
“Children should not only have the opportunity but also the freedom to safely participate in sport and what UTS strives for in everyday life is for the children to, regardless of their abilities or social background, have a chance and opportunity.
“We have seen two amazing festivals that took place during SportAccord in Bangkok and on the Gold Coast. We should have met in Beijing this year to celebrate the third instalment of the festival. However, this year we have witnessed first-hand the pandemic changing our lives in so many ways and certainly the world of sport and its landscape.
“Some of the competitions are pre-recorded, because we don’t want the kids to encounter difficulties with technology, and we also have to make sure that the kids don’t have to get up at four in the morning!
“Until November 20, all the kids are pre-recording their events. A special technical platform has been built by Rsportz from June to October and many sports and organisations have arranged their own qualification events for the Festival. Other events will be live, but this will depend on the technical difficulties of doing it.
“But there are many, many organisations involved. So here in Thailand we shall finish our Muaythai Championships – we have had over 30,000 kids from more than 100 countries participating. It was magic. We had four competitions - two of them were only Muaythai and the other two were qualifiers for the United Through Sports.
GAISF Vice-President & AIMS President Stephan Fox speaking at the @SportsThrough United Through Youth Opening Conference:— GAISF (@gaisf_sport) May 6, 2019
“There is no more noble cause than to work for a better tomorrow. I see it as our duty to shake hands, roll up our sleeves & work together as one.” #SA2019 pic.twitter.com/TPU1ZcCfII
"And other sports have been the same - they have had their own competitions, and they have included the United Through Sports competition."
The Festival involves five competitions - Max Fit, which tests contestants’ basic strength, power and stamina through a series of standardised exercises, Aero Fit, which involves three minutes of a choreographed sequence to music in teams of two, Talent, where youths showcase their own unique abilities, All Abilities, which involves sporting challenges in five age categories, and Special Olympics, which is a seven-week fitness competition that awards hard work and personal improvement.
The categories devised for the latest Festival will enable those from a wide range of sports to become involved, both in terms of competitors and judges.
Explaining as an example how the Max Fit event will work, Fox said: “What we did there was to take the core exercises of sport, regardless of whether you do basketball or swimming or judo or gymnastics.
“So together with about 10 different organisations we have come to the different core exercises, and so the kids then compete against each other, let’s say you have a kid from judo and a kid from baseball, they have to do the set exercise routine.
“And then the judges can come from say, swimming and football and basketball, so it is a first that all the sports are working together to basically judge the kids from different sports. So it’s a much closer co-operation, and all of them are doing now seminars on how to score and how we are going to work the time zone.
“Meanwhile the IPC has been running an all-ability competition for the last five months, where the kids from around the world had to make a 90-second exercise routine and then a 30-second message to the leaders of sport about what they would like to see change in sport in the world. It’s really amazing.
“We are doing the broadcasting through the Olympic Channel for the Opening Ceremony on November 20, and then we will also use local television stations.”
Messages have already been recorded from the IOC President Thomas Bach, the IPC President Andrew Parsons, the chief executive of the Special Olympics (SOI), Mary Davis, the former United Nations Secretary General Ban-Ki-Moon, and Raffaele Chiulli, President of the Global Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF).
“Every leader of a big sporting organisation is doing an opening message for the kids,” the ebullient Fox added.
“The sport departments of the IOC, IPC and SOI have really worked on this event - they have really involved themselves.
“And we will also be involving Partner Cities. The Festival will be celebrated all over the world with sister events occurring simultaneously around the world.
“Last year’s SportAccord event was on the Gold Coast in Australia, so all the kids who were part of the Festival that was held in Australia will come back to be part of this event.
“And the next event will be in Ekaterinaburg in 2021, so the kids there will have their own event.”
Other cities involved include Washington DC and Los Angeles as the host for the 2028 Olympics, Pyeongchang as host of the 2024 Youth Olympics and Milan-Cortina as host of the 2026 Winter Olympics.
Additional events will take place in Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Kazakhstan, UAE, Philippines and in the refugee camps in Sudan, Syria and on the Thai borders in Mae Sot.
Participants will come together to celebrate under the slogan, “One Spirit One Heart.”
“All the kids will be coming together for the final,” Fox added. “They will also have a band together, all the choirs from these cities and organisations will join together in one virtual platform. They will sing Heal the World, and Over the Rainbow…
“It’s more than just an event. It’s bringing the kids together and giving positive messages about unity, diversity and anti-discrimination."
The process of devising this logistically complex virtual event has borne fruit not just for this year, but for future years.
"I don’t think this will be a one-off," Fox said. "I think this will become an annual event - every year there will be now a virtual Festival. Because of what we have learned on the journey of putting this event together.
"For many kids nothing is going to change when the pandemic has finished. They are still going to live in refugee camps, they still can’t afford to go to sports events, they have political issues.
"So what we are going to do is put this event together every year. We will get the kids together without them needing to travel, without them needing to put their money on the table.
"Also don’t forget that the next Youth Olympics are 2026, so we are also looking for activities for the kids."
So the pandemic has caused positivity to emerge from negativity?
"Absolutely," Fox said. "We have tried to make an opportunity, and I think by analysing this each organisation also realised that this is a great opportunity to work together and to engage all the different kids who can come together on the one platform.
"It is not only a sporting event. We are also going to do a five-day world conference on gender equality, on anti-discrimination, on inclusion, where all the leaders of sport are coming together.
"We will have speakers from all organisations such as Thomas Bach, Andrew Parsons, Mary Davis, Ban Ki-Moon, Christophe De Kepper, Muhammad Yunus, Prince Albert II, Franceso Ricci Bitti, Rafaele Chiulli, His Royal Highness Prince Faisal and the list goes on.
"Additionally, there will be speakers from UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation), UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund), the World Anti-Doping Agency, the Independent Testing Authority, Olympic champions and the IOC refugee team."
Topics of focus will include: Peace through sport, Inclusion and non-discrimination, Athletes’ roles and responsibilities, Safeguarding and child protection among others.
"All will be part of the conference through a virtual link, with hosting by youth around the world. All the moderators are all kids. The speakers are all going to be asked two questions, and these questions will come from the international sports community.
"The kids are so excited and so proud to be part of this event. You just have to look at their Instagrams and their Facebook accounts. And especially the kids from the refugee camps and so on. It’s like a dream come true for them. Because they are getting real medals. And they are getting certificates signed by the IOC and IPC and Special Olympic Presidents.
"They will get virtual gold, silver and bronze medals first, and then we are going to give real medals to them."
Meanwhile the testimonials for the impending event are legion.
Bach has commented: "The current coronavirus crisis has proven that sport and an active lifestyle can save lives. With its own campaigns, the IOC has been working since the beginning of the crisis to make it even more evident how important sport is for physical and mental health, in particular in times of lockdown, social distancing and uncertainty.
"The IOC is excited that the UTS Virtual Youth Festival 2020 is inviting youth of all abilities and backgrounds from the international sports community. We have given patronage to the UTS Virtual Youth Festival 2020 and will also play an active part."
Parsons added: "Never has sport and the need to remain active been as important as it is now during the global COVID-19 pandemic due to the physical and mental health benefits it brings.
"The IPC through its patronage fully supports this innovative festival that will engage youngsters of all abilities around the world and keep them active during this difficult time."
Davis also offered her thoughts ahead of the event finale: "On behalf of our over six million Special Olympics athletes, we are delighted to grant patronage and applaud the effort of UTS to demonstrate the power of inclusive sport for all.
"Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Special Olympics halted all training and competitions for 2020, however are excited and we fully support the United Through Sports Virtual Youth Festival 2020 as being especially important for our athletes, to remain active, connected and certainly included. May this Festival be the first of many more inclusive events to come."
With the finals to be hosted in Bangkok, the President of the National Olympic Committee of Thailand, General Prawit Wongsuwan said: "The coronavirus pandemic requires our solidarity, determination, compassion and compromise. The Kingdom of Thailand is proud to host the finals of the UTS Virtual Youth Festival 2020 under patronage of the IOC, IPC and SOI in celebration of World Children’s Day."