Remember ‘Heal the world. Make it a better place. For you and for me and the entire human race’? Michael Jackson’s song still plays in minds and thoughts about how we should treat each other with respect and dignity, and live in harmony.
These words deliver a special message to today’s youth as the world is confronted by unprecedented environmental challenges and is struggling to cope with the damage and destruction that can be seen everywhere: floods, droughts, landslides, tsunamis.
At the first Winter Youth Olympic Games (YOG), in Innsbruck, Austria, UNEP teamed up with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to spread the message of environmental sustainability amongst young people: our future, our hope.
UNEP and the IOC have been working together for nearly 20 years to make the world’s largest sporting events as green as possible and to educate young people about the importance of sustainable development. In Innsbruck, young athletes thronged to the UNEP booth – part of the Culture and Education Programme – to gather information, participate in activities and post memos on the athletes’ wallboard.
The board was flooded with messages, from simple calls to cycle, recycle, plant trees and respect the environment, to action-oriented slogans calling for environmental sustainability: ‘The future is ours, embrace it’, ‘Trees are our friends, respect them’, and even ‘It’s now or never’. These messages and thoughts from the young athletes show that our generation truly cares. And we aren’t alone. The President of Hungary Pal Schmitt – double Olympic gold medalist and Chairman of the IOC’s Sport and Environment Commission – wrote ‘Higher, stronger, swifter and greener!’ All these will be shared with youth networks and other partners by the IOC and UNEP to promote a sense of urgency in the lead up to Rio+20 and beyond.
UNEP’s Tunza booth was a huge draw, with information on the wonder and fragility of mountain ecosystems, the green economy and youth employment, and the chemicals in our bodies. Visitors also had the chance to calculate their own ecological footprint. But it didn’t stop there. The importance of the environment – the third pillar of Olympism – was underlined right across Innsbruck 2012, with even an energy-saving competition in the Youth Olympic Village which allowed young athletes to show how aware they were and see which of the 375 apartments used the least energy during the Games. The spirit of competition fired the young athletes to take shorter showers, recharge mobiles and other gadgets during training sessions, and switch off un-needed lights.
The booths at the Youth Olympic Games are a way of reaching out to young minds and leaving a mark. Activities like these do produce tangible results. In the words of the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong: ‘A small step for man, a giant leap for mankind.’
As world leaders gather in Rio this June, let’s rekindle the spirit of Rio 1992 to halt the assault on our only planet, and work as a team to make it a better place for present and future generations. Let’s ‘heal the world’ … together.
Sonali Prasad is one of 15 young people, aged between 18 and 24 from the five continents, chosen to take part in the Innsbruck 2012 Youth Olympic Games Young Reporter Programme. They were either journalism students or people who had recently started their careers. The initiative provided the budding reporters with a cross-platform journalist training programme and on-the-job experience during the Games.