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The Junior Olympics are an annual event held by the United States Amateur Athletic Union (AAU). Unlike the Olympics, the junior version is open to US competitors only and held in American cities. Since 1967, the competition has given young athletes a chance to perform on a national stage, against the best competitors in the country.
The first Junior Olympics was held in 1967 in Washington, DC. Created nearly two decades prior, the AAU had originally worked to create head-to-head national matches for track and field athletes. With the help of corporate sponsorship, the nationwide competition quickly expanded to include sports outside the track and field discipline, including swimming, gymnastics and other major sporting events. By 2011, the competition will boast tournaments in 24 different sports, and has increased participation from 523 athletes in 1967 to 13,167 competitors in 2007.
The Junior Olympics incorporates sports that are important to and popular with youth, including several dance divisions such as cheerleading, clogging and drill. In addition to standard youth sports such as swimming, beach volleyball and martial arts, the competition also includes unusual categories such as jump rope and baton twirling. Meant to appeal to a broad spectrum of young people, the Junior Olympics breaks down many competitions by age range, with some competitors as young as 5 or as old as 22 allowed in certain disciplines.
The competition has been held in more than 20 American cities since its inception, most frequently returning to Tennessee, the host of 6 games. The strong support of five cities has lead to a rotating location schedule since 2001 that is intended to continue for the foreseeable future. Knoxville, Detroit, Des Moines, New Orleans, and Hampton Roads will rotate the games between them, at least until 2011.
Each discipline has specific entry requirements, but many require participation in preliminary events approved by the AAU. Some lower age divisions only require that the athlete be in good standing with the AAU, while others will only accept the top qualifiers in any field. The AAU website, www.aaujrogames.org, is an excellent source of information on participation guidelines and prerequisites.
In a time when obesity and diabetes rates are skyrocketing across the United States, instilling a love of physical activity in children can not be overestimated. The AAU uses the Junior Olympics as a means of promoting physical fitness among youth and teaching the principles of good sportsmanship. This worthy program can be the start of a sports career for any burgeoning young athlete, and may deserve thanks for its work in promoting healthy exercise, friendly competition and welcoming athletes from a wide variety of sports and backgrounds.