How sport has transformed the lives of young Colombians

A project implemented in a low-income neighborhood in Bogota, Colombia, as part of the Sport for Development and Peace initiative, used the Olympic march as a tool to foster the development of young people from low-income neighborhoods .

Sport for Development and Peace is an international movement that began with the United Nations Millennium Development Goals from 2000 to 2015, and continued with the Sustainable Development Goals from 2015 to 2030.

The Colombian program, which ran between 1996 and 2012 in the Ciudad Bolivar region but was discontinued eight years ago, has helped disadvantaged young people. The program has used sport to help young people avoid the dangers they face every day, including alcoholism, violence, prostitution, drug addiction, vandalism and armed gangs.



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As researchers from German, Colombian and Canadian institutions, we have examined how sport has transformed the lives of young Colombians affected by armed conflict.

50 years of Colombian armed conflict

Colombia has just over 48 million inhabitants, 22.6% of whom are children under 14 years old. For more than 50 years, the country has been in the throes of a war between the government and various rebel factions that has claimed more than 220,000 lives, 81.5% of them civilians and the rest combatants.

According to a 2019 report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Colombia has eight million internally displaced people due to the conflict, the highest number in the world. A Colombian report also revealed that more than two million children and adolescents were directly affected by the unrest.

Bogotá, the Colombian capital, has more than seven million inhabitants and its territory is divided into 20 localities, called localities.

Ciudad Bolivar is one of those urban areas struggling with poverty and violence. It has nearly 700,000 inhabitants spread over more than 200 neighborhoods and is located to the south of the city.

A woman walks along a path in the Ciudad Bolivar region, south of Bogota, Colombia in 2020.
(AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

This area is one of the main settlement areas for displaced people arriving in the city.

Many are slum dwellers. Although most residents are classified as low-income, 14.5% are classified as people with “unmet basic needs”, meaning they endure inadequate and overcrowded housing and inadequate basic services such as electricity and drinking water. This includes school-aged children who do not attend school.

The neighborhood is also considered one of the most dangerous in the city, with very few play areas for children. It is also risky for them to go anywhere alone due to the presence of street gangs and other illegal groups.

Finally, Ciudad Bolivar is the district of Bogota with the highest number of children under five living in poverty (17%).

The impact of sport on young Colombians

In 1996, an athletic club called the community school was created in the area under the responsibility of a physical education teacher.

A video segment about the sports club at community school. (Tegwen Gadais)

From the start, the club received support from the school and the community. Due to the success of the project, the Club Marcha Olimpica was born in 1999. Young athletes trained under the palo del ahorcadoa meaningful outdoor space for the community.

The objective of the program was twofold.

From the point of view of training, it was a question of ensuring that young people continued their studies in order to acquire technical or professional training enabling them to earn a living after their retirement from sport.

From an athletic perspective, the program aimed to support young athletes in their athletic development so that they could perform to the best of their abilities and achieve significant sporting results in their category at regional, national and international levels.

Over the years, several athletes have qualified for national championships and South American Games. Since its inception, eight young people between the ages of 13 and 16 have been selected to compete in the Olympic walking events of 800, 1,500 and 3,000 meters.

Six of them qualified for the national intercollegiate competitions.

Enrollment stimulated

This initial success attracted a growing number of young people to join the club. Thereafter, around 100 young athletes started competing and winning in various competitions, attracting international media attention.

The Bogotá sports authority selected around 40 young people to represent the community in the Colombian competition and supported them with various services (transport, technology, food and health). About 10 of the athletes of this club became medalists at national, South American, Pan American and world championships.

The objective of Sport in the service of development and peace is to use sport as a vehicle for carrying out various social and humanitarian missions: education, social cohesion, health, reintegration, diplomacy and peace.

Sport can serve as a lever for integration or social reintegration in developing countries or areas affected by conflict. For young people in particular, sport can be a means of instilling respect for opponents and rules, teamwork, sportsmanship, determination and discipline.



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Sport can also contribute to individual development, health promotion and disease prevention, gender equality, social integration, peace building, conflict prevention and resolution. conflict, as well as disaster and trauma relief. From a development perspective, the objective is to promote grassroots sport and not elite sport.

How sport can change lives and nations

In practice, sport for development and peace can take many forms. This may mean organizing clubs and tournaments in El Salvador to take back territory from street gangs and send children to school. Or it may be training coaches in the poorest neighborhoods of Montreal to mentor children.

In Madagascar, sport is used to keep children busy after school and away from the dangers of the streets.



Read more: Arts and sports activities contribute to well-being and resilience


It can also take the form of football matches between young Palestinians and Israelis to work on social cohesion and teach them to respect each other.

A black man wears a green cap while shaking hands with a white man holding a trophy.
South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar receives the Rugby World Cup trophy from President Nelson Mandela after South Africa beat New Zealand in June 1995.
(AP Photo/Ross Setford)

None of this is new. In 1894, Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games, declared: “I remain convinced that sport is one of the most powerful elements of peace and I am confident in its future action.

But it was in fact Nelson Mandela’s words that inspired the contemporary movement. In a speech at the 2000 Laureus World Sports Awards, he said:

“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people like few other things can.

Indeed, Mandela himself used the power of sport at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, after the official end of apartheid, to unite the people of South Africa – perhaps nature’s best example sports healing.

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