Youth Olympic Games – Part 1
I don’t know if you know, but I recently got back from the 3rd Youth Olympics, held in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where I was an umpire for the Hockey 5s. If you didn’t, maybe you missed my incessant social media posting. Or maybe you live under a rock. I don’t know. It’s not for me to judge your life choices. I’m just catching you up to speed with what was obviously ONE OF THE GREATEST WORLD EVENTS at the time (in my world at least…😉).
So, this post is all about my experience at the Games. I hope you enjoy! I’ve split it into 2 parts because it was getting a bit long and taking a while to write. You can read Part 2 here!
My experience at the Youth Olympic Games
I’m going to be honest straight up – I didn’t really know what to expect from these Games. I’d never been to Argentina, or even South America before, my experience with Hockey 5s was limited (the last time I had umpired it was over 3 years ago) and I wasn’t sure what standard to expect at an U18 level international tournament.
But I knew that Argentinians were passionate about their hockey (which I now know is an understatement!). I also knew that this was the biggest multi-sport event Argentina had ever held, and that there was going to be a lot of interest in the hockey – not only because of the fans, but because there had been rumours that Hockey 5s could be the next big push in international hockey. All the important people from world hockey and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) would be taking an interest in how it went.
So I knew it was going to be BIG and that it was going to be one hell of an experience.
No pressure. 😅
My prep for this tournament was much like any other – fitness work, mental work (imagery, game analysis, self-reflection), sharpening my skills on the pitch so that I could be at my best. We had a Facebook group for the umpires where we would post clips and discuss them (both Hockey 5s specific and normal 11-a-side clips for more general stuff like game management techniques), so that we were all on the same page when we got to the tournament. There was also organising the logistics of travel, visas, accreditation, etc. with FIH.
There was the little difference of having to learn the rules before we went though. I read, and re-read, and re-read again that little booklet of Hockey 5s rules to make sure it was cemented in my head. I did NOT want to be the person that blew the rules wrong on a global broadcast. No thank you! I also watched A LOT of clips and games of the qualifying tournaments before I went. This not only helped to analyse the rules in an in-game context, but also allowed me to look at the best umpire positioning and the teams’ playing styles. I tried to watch as many of the teams competing as possible, so that I had an idea of how each would move the ball, attack, etc.
Finally, I did something that I probably wouldn’t normally do… I went on a holiday! I thought, I’m going all the way to Argentina, I may as well take this opportunity to have a look around! So I spent 10 days traveling around Buenos Aires, Patagonia and Iguazu Falls.
Honestly, best decision ever.
Things were pretty stressful before I left. Work was pretty crazy, the Melbourne hockey finals were on (high pressure games), we had our fitness testing going on, I was doing my own training and I also doing a lot of video analysis of the games I’d umpired as well as for Hockey 5s prep. We were also talking about the rule modifications for the Australian Hockey League. And all of this was on top of the normal life stuff you have to do, as well as seeing my husband and friends occasionally…ha! Every day was long and busy, and I felt like I was struggling to take time to breathe. I was mentally exhausted.
Hiking though Patagonia in particular was like a breath of fresh air for me (literally! haha). Dumping the huge mental load I was carrying before I left actually allowed me to refresh, and turn my focus solely to the tournament ahead. I don’t think the Youth Olympics would have gone as well for me as it did if I hadn’t had this time out. So, on reflection, a great decision. I also love traveling and exploring new places and cultures. It makes me really happy. 😀
Count down to Day 1…
Briefings and Uniforms
Heading back to Buenos Aires, I arrived early on our designated arrival day for the tournament. I was asked to umpire a couple of practice matches the Australian’s were having out at the field and I gladly jumped at the opportunity. I got a sneak peak at the venue, which was cool, but things were still being finished off so it wasn’t the “full experience” if you like. It also felt like a bit of a ghost town because there weren’t that many people around – it was a surreal experience.
Umpiring the practice games though was soooo good. Definitely helped calm the nerves and to remember that at the end of the day it was still just hockey! The fundamental rules aren’t different when you boil it down. I also got to meet some of the volunteers, which was great because it was nice to see their friendly faces throughout the tournament cheering us on too!
The next day all the umpires had our briefings at the field together. We were missing a few members who had been delayed in their travels, but it was great to finally get to meet everyone and get stuck into the business side of the tournament. Umpires love talking about rules (who would have thought…), and so we had some great discussions around the more “interpretation-based” rules. We then got to have a look around the venue and then it was off to the uniform collection centre!
All the officials and volunteers for the games had specific uniforms to wear and the uniform centre was on the other side of the city to where the hockey stadium was. This made it a long process overall (around 5 hours, the majority of which was travelling!). I passed the time by annoying Lizé (from South Africa) with lots of questions about the Afrikaans language and culture. CAUSE I’M A NERD.
The collection centre was pretty efficient. Unfortunately they didn’t have everything left in my size, so my uniform was a little big, but that’s always going to happen. It could have been worse! We got given pants that zipped off to shorts, 3 t-shirts, a jumper, a jacket, a rain poncho, a hat and a bag. Pretty good haul! Good thing I brought an empty suitcase with me… We were also given our official FIH umpiring shirts earlier in the day. Yes, FIH shirts of my very own. I die. 😍 (You only get FIH uniform at big tournaments, so it’s special when you do finally get given your own!).
We then had dinner and got to know each other a little better.
The Opening Ceremony
The day before the tournament was relatively free for us. We explored the city a bit, did some exercise and had a team meeting in the afternoon about our goals as a team for the tournament.
THEN, it was time for the Opening Ceremony.
Ok, first off – I’m going to put this into context for you. It was the first time in Olympic history that the Opening Ceremony had been held outside of a stadium. It was held at the main central point of Buenos Aires – the Obelisk, and it was open to the public. More than 200,000 attended, as well as most of the 4000 athletes.
It was a stroke of luck (or great foresight) that the hotel we were staying at was literally on the square, in line with the obelisk. So, we had a front row view FROM OUR BALCONIES. It was insane!! The downside was that sleeping the few nights beforehand was hard, as they rehearsed until about 2-3am, but it was totally worth it to be able to watch the amazing show from the comfort of our hotel.
The performance was incredible and they used the Obelisk really well. There were people climbing down it with flags, people running up an athletics track, rowing up a river or doing BMX tricks on it. The Olympic rings were also mobile, and they were hoisted up in the air over the athletes, with acrobats doing tricks on them while they spun around.
THEN IT WAS THE START OF THE TOURNAMENT! So much waiting, and training, and preparing and it was finally here!
On the first day we all went out together as a team for the whole day, to watch the matches and support each other. This was one of the things that became very evident throughout the tournament, and one of the things I appreciated the most about this experience – we were a team, in the true sense of the word. It wasn’t the “boys panel” and the “girls panel”. We were ONE team and supported each other as such. Everyone got along so well, and this cross-pollination of the panels allowed each of us to learn so much more from each other. It’s not often that men’s and women’s tournaments are held together, and even more rare for the umpiring panel to be one team like this. I thought it was excellent and really speaks to the gender equality movement that FIH are promoting.
So, we left to catch the bus at 7am, which considering I was umpiring at 5pm, made for a long first day for me. But it was so exciting to be at the park, see the first games kick off, explore the other arenas, watch the stands fill to capacity and see Luciana Aymar(!!) do the coin toss for Argentina’s opening game (the boys), that it was totally worth the early morning start!
My first game was Argentina vs. Vanuatu. Luciana Aymar didn’t do the coin toss for our game though, which I was
totally a little salty about, not going to lie. The game itself was fairly one-sided (the score ended up at 21-0), but the experience was incredible. The noise from the crowd was CRAZY. I never knew 3000-4000 people could make so much noise! I’d never umpired in front of a crowd that big, or that loud, before, and so it was a great experience for me to learn what true “stadium umpiring” is.
It was also a great experience for the Vanuatu girls. You could see the awe on their faces as they stepped out onto the pitch, with the capacity crowd screaming and cheering. They’d never seen hockey like this before. And to be fair, I’d say that not many of us had either (the other athletes and the officials). To those who say that it’s unfair for teams like Vanuatu to come to these tournaments and get smashed every game, I highly recommend you read this great article by FIH on the Vanuatu teams.
We then headed back to the hotel and out for dinner to celebrate my co-umpire Gemma from Spain’s birthday! Argentina’s opening game at the Youth Olympics AND an Argentinian steak? What a way to celebrate!!!
The rest of the pool matches continued in much the same fashion. We were mostly out at the field for large chunks of the day, but we did get some opportunities to explore the other parks around the city and see some other sports. Sophie and I went and checked out the 3×3 basketball at the urban park one morning, and also watched them set up for the skateboarding and rock climbing. It was really cool to see the atmospheres created across the city with art features, interactive tents and activities and fans being able to get close to and interact with the athletes. That’s something really special about the Youth Olympics.
I also used this time to learn and grow as much as I possibly could. This was largely achieved by having great chats with our superstar cast of Umpire Managers – Colin French (NZL), Pierre-Philippe Van Besien (BEL) and Soledad Iparraguirre (ARG). I annoyed Soledad in particular with lots of questions. If you’re an umpire and you don’t know who she is, you should. Let me give you the briefest version of her CV – 4 Olympics, including 2 Gold Medal matches and 4 World Cups, including 2 World Cup finals. She retired from international umpiring in 2016 after the Rio Olympics with 197 caps and after almost 20 years of umpiring at international level. Let’s just say she’s got a lot of experience and knowledge to share!
Then it was time to get down to business. Finals time, baby!
I was gifted a great, and a little surprising, quarterfinal. China vs. Austria, battling it out for a place in the semis. And boy did they battle! This game HAD. IT. ALL.
Read all about it in Part 2… 😉