Travel Weekly senior editor Michelle Baran is in Brasilia and Rio de Janeiro this week on a press trip hosted by Embratur, Brazil's tourism board, to see the progress being made as the South American country readies to host the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Her first dispatch follows.
BRASILIA, Brazil — A few weeks before coming to Brazil, I got sucked into a gripping tale on the front page of the Sunday New York Times sports section detailing a gruesome double murder in a small village in northeastern Brazil that all started with a local soccer match and a yellow card.
The story reaffirmed a lot of the concerns observers have about Brazil hosting the upcoming 2014 World Cup — namely that Brazil’s history of crime and violence will come to bear during the international sporting event, which will take place across 12 host cities, June 12-July 13.
But what I witnessed this week in the outskirts of the country’s capital was the story less told about the strides Brazil is making in the war against crime and violence.
Among the network of satellite cities that surround Brasilia, 11 new recreational Olympic Centers have been built over the past four years (with a 12th coming in 2014) as part of the Brasilia government’s project for athletes of the future — an effort that is keepings kids in poorer neighborhoods off the streets and, hopefully, out of trouble.
The facility I visited on Wednesday was located in Ceilandia, about a 40 minute-drive outside the capital. Having just opened in August, the center features a covered basketball court, a gymnasium, two swimming pools, a track, a playground, a soccer field and an indoor multi-use facility.
Using local and federal funding to build and maintain the facility, as well as to pay its staff of 50 athletic instructors and maintenance crew, local children, adults and seniors can now come to the center to get swimming lessons, learn gymnastics and of course, play soccer — all for free.
“The idea is to give the kids a place to go — to give the kids an option not to be on the streets,” said Jerson Vieira, a pro soccer player who now oversees the instructors at the center.
Before the center opened, the only place kids had to hang out before and after school was at the local soccer field, at home or around the neighborhood. In Brazil, there isn’t a culture of teaching physical education and having sports programs at school the way there is the U.S.
But now, neighborhood kids have a place they can go to learn sports and skills they would have never had access to, all under the supervision of trained instructors that on the day we visited were teaching discipline and sportsmanship to smiling and engaged pupils.
“It’s fantastic,” said Marlene Maria da Luz, a local retiree who was taking her twin 4-year-old granddaughters, Lara and Luara, to swimming lessons on Wednesday morning. Before the center opened, her grandson would just play soccer, she said.
While the Olympic Centers are not a direct result of the World Cup or of the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Rio (the centers had been planned independently of the events), the hype surrounding the international sporting competitions has raised awareness in Brazil about the benefits of recreational sports and activities beyond just those of soccer.
And perhaps more importantly, they offer a possible solution to the problems such as those that led to the atrocity in northeastern Brazil, a path to making sports a force for good.
Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.