A Young Change-Maker (YCM) for the Colombia team at the Youth Olympic Games (YOG) Nanjing 2014, Juan Sebastián Sánchez Díaz has a vision: to challenge the dominant position enjoyed by football and cycling in Colombia and encourage his compatriots to take up other sports. It is a vision he has been pursuing in some of the country’s most disadvantaged areas.
Through the Olympic Workshop project, which he rolled out with the support of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), 26-year-old Juan has introduced schoolchildren around the country to the joys of handball, field hockey, badminton and laser run.
“Colombian society has been quite polarised as a result of the peace process, and I felt the need to do something to help vulnerable people in remote regions,” he explains. “So I designed an educational programme for marginalised schools. We have our heroes in cycling and football, but I felt we could have better teams in other sports, and I wanted children to have the opportunity to play those other sports.”
“We’ve given children at each school a day or two of sports training, combined with talks about peace and reconciliation and the power of sport to unite people. We left the equipment with the schools so they could carry on practising and also gave them the chance to create sports clubs for the sports they like and to contact the national federations so they could receive training. The project has reached 500 youngsters at five schools across the country and we’ve managed to create two sports clubs.”
Juan, who runs a strategic design company in his home town of Bogotá, has now handed the project on to the national federations and is currently dedicating his energies to taking the frisbee-based sport of beach ultimate to an even more remote part of the country, namely the Pacific port of Buenaventura. “I looked into the cost of it all because I want to make cheaper sports available, so the people who play them don’t have to spend much on equipment,” he explains. “Buenaventura is one of most poverty-stricken areas in the country. Communities don’t have much there and I want to give the people who live in them opportunities through sport.”
A keen athlete who had to give up his favourite sport of taekwondo because of injury and now plays badminton instead, Juan showed that same desire to help others during his time as a YCM in Nanjing.
For me the Olympics are all about uniting people.Juan Sebastián Sánchez Díaz Colombia
“I tried to contact all the athletes in our delegation as soon as they qualified for the YOG,” he explains. “I wanted to be on their level and become their friends so they would trust me. I wanted to know about their lives, their hobbies and everything outside sport. It was nice because I became a confidante for many of the athletes during the Games, a liaison between them and the heads of the Colombia delegation.”
“They were under pressure to perform and I wanted to take that edge off things. Many of them didn’t speak English or other languages either, so I was their translator at times as well, helping them to connect and interact with athletes from other countries, and to swap badges with them too.”
Explaining how his Chinese experience influenced him, he says: “It helped me understand how sport worked in my country and to see things from the athletes’ point of view: their struggles and hurdles, and how committed they were. I could see that they needed help and it was a big inspiration for me to go and pursue my projects.”
Juan will be returning to the Youth Olympic Games later this year, in Buenos Aires, where he will be delivering Learn and Share activities through the Colombia team and presenting his Olympic Workshop project at a social entrepreneurship event held as part of the inaugural Olympism in Action Forum.
Source of inspiration
The Olympic Games themselves are another source of inspiration for this selfless young Colombian: “They represent what people can achieve if they put their mind to it. It’s a show of prowess by everyone who takes part. To me sport unites more than it divides. It’s a very useful tool for collaboration and for bringing people together. For me the Olympics are all about uniting people. And then there are the benefits of an active lifestyle.”
Putting that very concept into practice, he will be spending the days leading up to Olympic Day extolling the health benefits of physical activity to the elderly people of Bogotá: “What I like to do, not just on Olympic Day but throughout the month, is to focus on elderly people. I like to do projects with yoga and dancing for over 60s. I have a collaboration with a day centre for the elderly and we bring in some amazing yoga instructors and other coaches.”
“You can see the effect sport has on some people, how it improves their lifestyles, more than some medicines do. It also tackles social stigmas and the idea that old people should just stay in and watch TV. There are a lot of stereotypes about that. We have seen huge improvements with elderly people. I sometimes feel that when we talk about sport we just focus on young people. Of course, if you want to be an elite athlete, then you have to be young, but you can still play sport when you’re older and have a really good quality of life.”
“Last year we had a photoshoot and Olympic Day banners, and we’re doing something similar this week. Then on Olympic Day itself I’m going to take part in a fun run organised by the Colombian National Olympic Committee in Bogotá.”
As he has shown with his efforts to introduce lesser-known sports to his compatriots and to help Bogotá’s senior citizens stay active, Juan has shown that his commitment to sport and the Olympic values it enshrines is based on more than just words.
As 2018 marks the 70th anniversary of Olympic Day, this year the International Olympic Committee is celebrating through United By, which recognises the people who make sport happen every day for themselves, their families, friends and communities.