“Mom, where did you put my spikes?” The tartan of the Bouleyres stadium in Bulle is teeming with the very young athletes. In the stands, pre-teens talk about the time they aspire to. A little further down the track, two instructors supervise the warm-up of a group of toddlers. Many wear the black and pink uniform of the local club. Others don’t even do athletics. The bottom line: Some may be the discipline’s future national stars.
They reveal the vocation of events stamped “UBS Kids Cup”, such as this Tuesday in Gruyère. This year there are about 1000 of the same species across the country. They are open to everyone and will gather some 160,000 children aged 7 to 15 around a “triathlon” of the basics: running (a 60 meters), throwing (a small ball), jumping (long).
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The results of each elimination day, like Bulle’s, are collected and converted into points. The best of each age group will participate in the cantonal finals, which will qualify for the national final in Zurich’s Letzigrund, on the sidelines of the international Weltklasse meeting.
Athletes who ignore each other
The UBS Kids Cup is an annual nationwide scouting process. A gigantic talent sieve that rakes wide and sorts efficiently. The system, devised in 2011, is seen as one of the essential cogs in the current success of Swiss athletics. Simon Ehammer and Angelica Moser stood out before becoming vice world champions in the decathlon and European champions pole vault, both indoors. Ditto for Jason Joseph, who holds the Swiss record in the 110-meter hurdles, or Yasmin Giger, world champion in the 400-meter hurdles for under-20s.
“Twenty athletes who have passed through the UBS Kids Cup have already won international medals,” emphasizes Marco Meili, head of a project jointly run by Swiss Athletics and the Weltklasse. Since the introduction of this program, the density of elite athletes in Switzerland has increased enormously over the past ten years.”
Back to Gruyère, where Jean-Luc Robert updates endless lists of results. “This project is brilliant, the president launches intermediate of the Friborg Athletics Federation. I understood it from the moment it was introduced to us a few years before the European Championships in Zurich in 2014.” During that time, the various players in the field have explored a number of development paths. They mainly want to widen the base of the pyramid. And realize that the schools are full of athletes who ignore each other. They run, throw and jump. The challenge is to identify those who are doing well. And make them want to do better. That is, start with athletics.
Costs of the organizers
To catch them, they imagine a motivational competition for them. A little about the fun prizes to be won. Especially by being able to measure their own progress from year to year and compare themselves not only with direct opponents, but also with previous generations, since the “triathlon” remains the same for everyone. Registration is of course free.
In order for the network of events to cover the entire national territory, a multitude of local organizers had to be found. “The stroke of genius is there: it is a totally turnkey concept that has been proposed,” continues Jean-Luc Robert.
Sports clubs, schools or private individuals can seize it. The UBS Kids Cup provides them with all the computer files needed to record results, pre-apply training programs and much more. “The first year we received umbrellas, tables, chairs, benches, recalls Benoît Fragnière, who coordinates the Sporting Athlétisme Bulle day. We even had folding tents that we have never used before…”
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Better: the organizers of an event receive 2 francs per participant as an expense. They were around 120 at the Bouleyres stadium on Tuesday. For a society that operates on the principle of volunteering, this is not negligible.
Super talent and football
All these resources stem from the commitment of the bank that gives its name to the Kids Cup. “We see what we can achieve with the long-term support of a major sponsor,” greets Benoît Fragnière, before taking the microphone for the next batch of children expected on the 60m starting line.
UBS is proud to have been the “main partner of Swiss athletics” for some 40 years. As a sponsor of Swiss Athletics, Athletissima and Weltklasse meetings, the bank has a double impact with the Kids Cup. In the short term, she enjoys maximum visibility at hundreds of events across the country. In the medium and long term, it participates in bringing forward new stars, which will provide better exposure to the discipline with which it is closely associated.
In practice, however, we talk less about interest rates and financial investments than about physical development and the potential for technical improvement. Behind the hugely popular character, the idea of talent detection is ubiquitous. “The SA Bulle does not intend to increase the number of members – we have to turn them down every year because there are not enough instructors to guide more people,” Benoît Fragnière laughs. What’s really interesting is seeing kids at work who hadn’t thought of athletics before. He pauses. “Well, sometimes, the super talent, we go talk to him, he tells us that he plays football, that he loves it, and that’s where the story ends…”
On the Bouleyres tartan, there are all sizes and all levels. It is during the cantonal final that the clubs really start looking for rough diamonds. With cantonal details in extraction techniques. “In Friborg, there is a tacit agreement: it is the coach of the cantonal framework who contacts the authors of remarkable achievements, explains Jean-Luc Robert. And if there is an interest in athletics on their part, he puts them in touch with the most suitable club for him.
Such an gentlemen’s agreement is not on the agenda in all regions, but the financial commitment remains less important than, for example, in football, where the flirtation of young talents leads to a rat race. “The most important thing is not to miss anyone,” the president continues intermediate of the Friborg federation.
Internationally, the success of Swiss athletics is intriguing and the concept of the UBS Kids Cup is challenging. A few years ago, visiting Zurich for the Weltklasse, the British president of World Athletics, Sebastian Coe, wanted to know more. He would have been conquered. Project manager Marco Meili does not deny that he regularly receives “requests for information from Switzerland, abroad and from different sports disciplines”. However, he believes that “the promotion of sports in other countries is not always comparable to that in Switzerland” and above all that “everyone should make their own experiences”.
Simon Ehammer: “The Kids Cup has started a positive spiral”
Vice world indoor decathlon champion last March, the 22-year-old from Appenzeller is one of the first members of the “UBS Kids Cup generation” to reach the international elite. But in five appearances, he never won the children’s competition.
Le Temps: How important has the UBS Kids Cup been in your career?
Simon Ehammer: I have participated in it from the first edition, when I did not practice athletics in the club, but played football. It is a breathtaking experience to meet for the final at the Letzigrund in Zurich, in the context of the Weltklasse, with stars like Usain Bolt easily accessible to exchange a few words and take pictures, and the best Swiss athletes of the moment to guide us.
How many times have you won the competition?
No! I participated five times in the qualifiers and three times in the national final in Zurich, where I finished thirteenth twice and second once. The level was high in my age group, that of young people born in 2000, and I was quite small compared to the others. It wasn’t until I was 15 that I started to have some success and managed to get on the podium in the Kids Cup. Until then I had a lot of fun, but I was too far back to project myself on a career in top sport. But at that moment I thought to myself that one day it would be great to return to Letzigrund to participate in the Weltklasse as an athlete.
Is the Kids Cup responsible for the current success of Swiss athletics?
Yes, that’s one of the reasons. If we compare those who have participated with those who are currently getting good results in international competitions, there is some form of proof. This program then starts a positive spiral, with more and more good athletes inspiring young children. Overall, it’s great to see so many young people moving around these very simple competitions. Running, throwing a ball and jumping is within everyone’s reach and at their age you don’t necessarily need to be in a club to develop good skills.
You gave the “Kids Cup generation” their first medal at the World Cup, silver in the indoor decathlon. What are your next goals?
This season I will compete in the World Championships in Eugene, in long jump, then the European Championships in Munich, in decathlon. I will train hard, with the idea of competing with the best and aiming for the podium, even if it will be very difficult. But I’m now in the Paris 2024 Olympic cycle. Anything that comes between now and then will be great, but I have to see each experience above all as a step towards the Games.
Where are you going for the gold?
Gold would be great. A medal would be great.