Twenty years ago today, athletes from 14 countries paraded on Edinburgh Castle Esplanade at the Opening Ceremony of the ‘Millennium’ Commonwealth Youth Games. It was the start of a successful Games for Scotland with 32 medals across six sports but, more importantly, it was the beginning of an event that has played a key role in the career development of many athletes around the world.
The first country to host the main Games twice, Scotland again led the way with the introduction of this new and exciting event for those just breaking through to the top level of sporting competition. The event quickly proved to be a great success, bridging the gap between young athletes competing in their own sports specific events and the daunting first experience of a senior multi-sport Games. The Youth Games now attracts entries from all 71 nations and territories of the Commonwealth and has been the ideal introduction to multi-sport Games for a host of international stars.
Edinburgh 2000 paved the way and those first Youth Games were given the royal seal of approval as H.R.H. Prince Edward, The Earl of Wessex, officially opened the Games at the Edinburgh International Tattoo. Scotland’s team of 88 athletes was led into the Opening Ceremony by hockey player Louise Carroll as flag bearer, beginning the Games which saw eight sports in action: Athletics, Fencing, Gymnastics, Hockey, Tennis, Squash, Swimming and Weightlifting over three days of competition.
The Youth Games brought Commonwealth Games competition back to the Royal Commonwealth Poo (Swimming)l and Meadowbank Stadium (Athletics and Gymnastics), the venues for many Scottish sporting triumphs in 1970 and 1986. The Athletes’ Village was hosted at Heriot Watt University, also the venue for the Fencing and Squash competitions. Hockey was held at Peffermill, Tennis at Craiglockhart Tennis Centre and Weightlifting at Meadowmill Sport Centre in East Lothian.
Gymnastics was Scotland’s top sport at these Games with two gold, one silver and four bronze medals and also provided Scotland’s most successful athlete – Craig Barry winning gold on Vault and silver on Floor – and the most medalled – Michelle Denholm winning four bronze in the Rhythmic events. Gymnastics’ second gold came from Gayle Campbell in the Women’s Vault.
Scotland’s swimmers brought home the most medals with 11, while the Athletics team contributed six to the tally. There were four medals for Fencing, led by a gold and bronze in the Women’s Foil for Liz Wright and Nicola Ramsay. Gary McLean scored three bronze medals in Weightlifting and there was silver for the Women’s Tennis team, which included the late Elena Baltacha.
Many of Scotland’s athletes at these Games went on to successful senior careers with 14 going onto represent Team Scotland at senior Commonwealth Games. Swimming medallists Todd Cooper and Kirsty Balfour both went on to win medals at the Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games and compete for Great Britain at Olympic Games. Part of the Hockey team in 2000, Vikki Bunce went on to win 206 caps for Scotland and competed at three Commonwealth Games – 2006, 2010 and 2014. Freya Ross (nee Murray) competed in the Marathon at the London 2012 Olympics, having contested the 1500m at Edinburgh 2000.
Gillian Cooke, 4th in the Triple Jump in Edinburgh went on to compete at two Commonwealth Games in Athletics before switching sports, becoming World Champion in Bobsleigh in 2009 and competing at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics. She credits the Commonwealth Youth Games as the catalyst for her senior success.
“The Commonwealth Youth Games was where it all started,” she said. “I remember marching up to the Castle for the Opening Ceremony, singing ‘Flower of Scotland’ and the streets were packed. That was the moment I knew I wanted to do this again and set my sights on competing at Manchester 2002. The Youth Games not only gave me the experience of a multi-sport Games, which made my senior Commonwealth Games and Olympic experiences easier, but it was the spark for really committing to sport, it gave me the belief that I could compete at the top level.
“I can’t believe that it was 20 years ago! Sport has given me so much over those years and now, having been to two Commonwealth Games and two Youth Games as a member of staff, it feels like I’ve come full circle. Being able to see the positive impact that the Youth Games still has for young athletes, I’m very proud to have been part of the first one.”
Since Edinburgh 2000 the Youth Games has gone from strength to strength with editions in Bendigo, Australia in 2004, Pune, India in 2008, Isle of Man in 2011, Samoa in 2015 and the Bahamas in 2017.
Scottish Commonwealth Games gold medallists such as boxer Charlie Flynn, swimmer Hannah Miley and gymnast Daniel Keatings, all had their introduction to a multi-sport Games at the Commonwealth Youth Games. International stars such as Olympic Swimming champion Jodie Henry of Australia, Olympic Heptathlon champion Jessica Ennis-Hill of England and Olympic 800m champion Caster Semenya of South Africa, also competed in the Commonwealth Youth Games.
The Commonwealth Youth Games has grown in stature since its inception, so much so that the Olympic movement has now embraced the concept and there are now summer and winter editions of Youth Olympic Games.
20 years on, 166 Scottish athletes have progressed from the Commonwealth Youth Games to senior Commonwealth Games. The Youth Games continues to fulfil its aim of being the springboard to future success for athletes across the Commonwealth and will hopefully continue to do just that for many years to come.