The year 2000 gave us many things.   

Coldplay released their debut album, Kylie Minogue made a massive comeback and a show called Big Brother hit our screens, changing reality TV forever.

Not bad for a year that was supposed to start with global disaster. Thankfully, the infamous YTK millennium bug did not materialise.

On the sporting fields, France beat Italy to become Euro champions in football, while the Millennium Olympic Games took place in Australia where Cathy Freeman, Denise Lewis, Ian Thorpe and of course Eric ‘the Eel’ Moussambani stole our hearts.

2000 also staged the first ever Commonwealth Youth Games, giving young athletes aged between 14-18 a platform to develop their skills and gain valuable experience on the international stage.

23 years later Trinidad and Tobago is preparing to host the seventh edition of the Games, where for the first time, para-athletes will be competing in athletics. 

Like the main Games, the para sport schedule will be completely integrated and allow developing athletes to progress to represent senior teams at major international championships in the future.

The Commonwealth Youth Games was an idea born in Scotland as a way to encourage young athletes to continue with their sports once they hit the seniors.

Dame Louise Martin, now the President of the Commonwealth Games Federation, was part of that original think-tank and explains what they wanted to achieve.

 “We were losing too many young athletes from around the age of 14. Everything was age-related and they were fantastic in their youth but the minute they transitioned to the seniors – well everyone is equal. 

“Many of them started to drop out – some of them were not winning anymore and others were just overawed.

Let’s start a Games for youth in the Commonwealth

“In 1999 we decided to give them something to work towards and with the millennium in 2000 we said, ‘let’s start a Games for youth in the Commonwealth’.

“The first event was held in Edinburgh, Scotland and the opening and closing ceremony was part of the Edinburgh Tattoo which was brilliant - and it did not cost us a penny!

“Built into the Games was a day of educational programming which was vital for the athletes to build and develop.

“Seeing these young people in the Youth Games thoroughly enjoying themselves and competing hard, gave them the impetus to kick forward and get into the main Games,” added Dame Louise.

“We have had a lot of people transition to the main Games and to the Olympic Games.”

Those athletes who have competed in the Youth Games include England’s Jessica Ennis-Hill, South Africa’s Caster Semenya, Chad le Clos and Scotland’s Duncan Scott.

A key part of the Youth Games is to promote cultural understanding and friendship and with this in mind, the venues for the Games have been carefully chosen.

In 2004, the Games were held in Bendigo Australia where a certain Jessica Ennis-Hill came away with two silver medals.

“It was pretty scary and it was the furthest I had ever been away from home at that age, but it was incredible,” said Ennis who went on to win heptathlon bronze in Melbourne in the 2006 Commonwealth Games before taking gold in the 2012 Olympic Games to add to her three World Championship titles. 

In 2008, the legacy headed to Pune, India where a young 17-year-old South African athlete found herself.

The inspirational Caster Semenya has gone on to win two gold Commonwealth Games medals, two Olympic gold medals and three World Championships.

“I rate my Pune 2008 Commonwealth Youth Games medal highest because that's when I was born,” said Semenya.

“That's when I raised the bar for myself. My first appearance and being able to win in a big manner.”

From India, the games travelled to The Isle of Man in 2011 and then to Samoa in 2015. It was in the Pacific Island where, for the first time, the young athletes also participated in a range of workshops exploring themes around shared values, integrity and the impact sport can make to development and peace.

Dame Louise hailed the 2017 Games in the Bahamas as a “turning point in the island’s incredible sporting history. “It saw the British Virgin Islands and Mozambique win their first-ever Youth Games medals and the hosts excelling on home soil, securing an historic thirteen places on the podium.

Over 5000 athletes have taken part in the Commonwealth Youth Games, competing in sports including athletics, archery, aquatics, cycling, boxing, gymnastics, weightlifting, wrestling, hockey, judo, rugby sevens, squash and tennis. The Games have grown to provide a spectacular sporting stage and cultural platform for the Commonwealth’s finest young athletes to shine.

In 2019 the twin islands of Trinidad and Tobago were awarded the 2021 Commonwealth Youth Games. Unfortunately they were postponed due to Covid but will welcome the next promising generation of athletes from the Commonwealth in August 2023.

For Trinidad and Tobago Minister of Sport and Community Development  Shamfa Cudjoe it is a chance to showcase what her country has to offer, and to really make strides in cultivating friendships and giving youngsters the confidence and opportunities to thrive.

In a world of uncertainty and struggle, her words are powerful. And while they may be intended to describe developing countries, they will resonate with teenagers struggling to find their identity and their place in this world. 

“For me the most exciting part is the sharing.” explained Cudjoe. 

“We want to show that a developing country as little as we are, can do this and we want to teach developing countries that you can use whatever you have to make the magic happen. 

“What we bring to the Commonwealth is as unique as a fingerprint. This uniqueness must be shown off and we must take pride in that. When we combine our resources and our values then we can all become better. 

We must be brave, confident and courageous enough to know that we are all valuable and we all have something to share

Landmark dates like Commonwealth Day make us focus on what is important – supporting our youth must surely be at the top of the agenda. 60% of the Commonwealth population is aged 29 or under and sport has a role to connect, transform and unite the Commonwealth to help unlock our human potential and transform lives.

Author: Julian Crabtree