Ahead of the International Day of Sport for Development and Peace (IDSDP) tomorrow (April 6), we highlight Betsmara’s work in Puerto Rico. A former international swimmer and her country’s Young Change-Maker (YCM) at the Youth Olympic Games (YOG) Nanjing 2014, she is now spearheading an ambitious social project to tackle childhood obesity on her native Caribbean island as part of the IOC’s global YCM+ programme.
Puerto Rico is sadly no stranger to powerful tropical storms but, when Hurricane Maria ravaged the island in September 2017, the Category 5 cyclone left an unprecedented trail of destruction. The impact had a particularly profound effect on Betsmara Cruz and ultimately proved the catalyst for her joining the YCM+ programme.
“After Maria struck the island, a lot of sports facilities were destroyed or badly damaged,” she explained. “Our National Olympic Committee [NOC] started to visit the worst-affected communities to bring sport and joy to the people. When I found out about the YCM+ programme, I decided to take the concept and visit schools and educate students not only about healthy living through sports, but also about the Olympic values.”
Her decision to extol the values of a healthy lifestyle was also sparked by Puerto Rico’s ongoing public health problems, with 65 per cent of the population classed as overweight or obese. Cruz’s mission is to help combat the crisis at an early age, focusing her YCM+ programme – which began in September 2018 – on school children aged nine to 15.
Thanks to the generous support of TOP sponsor Panasonic, the YCM+ programme offers Young Change-Makers around the world the opportunity to apply for up to CHF 5,000 to deliver their own grassroots social projects that leverage sport to address a challenge in their communities.
“Our objective is to impact 1,000 students by June 2019 in Puerto Rico by promoting the Olympic Movement,” she said. “We have sporting events, as well as art programmes and social and traditional media workshops. Most importantly, we want students to learn that the Olympic Movement is more than medals; it is an inclusive movement that promotes excellence, respect and friendship within a healthy lifestyle.
“I have enjoyed such great support for my project so far from my NOC President, Sara Rosario. She wants the programme to grow and we hope to expand it over the whole of Puerto Rico in the near future. The President has accompanied me to each school that we have visited.
“I’m also grateful for the support of Panasonic, who have helped fund this project in partnership with the IOC. I’m delighted Panasonic has decided to reward those who want to change lives throughout the world using sport as the main focus.”
High-profile Puerto Rico athletes such as four-time Olympic swimmer Vanessa Garcia, judoka Alexis Chiclana, a competitor at the Olympic Games Beijing 2008, and beach volleyball player Maria Gonzalez, who was at the YOG Buenos Aires 2018, have all helped Cruz spread her important message at events at schools in the cities of Lares, Adjuntas and Villalba.
A coordinator from the Puerto Rico NOC, Cruz set a national record for the 1,500m freestyle in 2010 but retired from competitive swimming in 2013. Since bringing an end to her racing career, she has earned an MA in International Relations from Webster University.
Cruz’s ambitious YCM+ project is the third chapter in her ongoing Olympic story. It began in China five years ago before taking her to the Republic of Korea in 2018, and the 30-year-old admits her YOG experience changed her life.
“Working as a YCM at the YOG Nanjing 2014 was a real eye-opener for me,” she said. “I had been involved my whole life in competitive sports as an athlete, but being a YCM at the Games helped me understand that the Olympic Movement goes beyond just medals and high-performance competitions. At this point, I was determined to use sport and my background as an athlete to help society back home.
“I also helped with administration before the YOG and worked with the Chef de Mission of Puerto Rico during the Games in Nanjing. It was my first professional experience in sports management and, as a result, I served as the Chef de Mission at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018. I owe that to my experiences in Nanjing.”