Despite the numerous challenges created by the current COVID-19 situation, and ahead of the International Day of Sport for Development and Peace on 6 April, we take a moment to reflect on what sport can bring for social cohesion and community building, both of which the world will need even more once it has recovered from this unprecedented health crisis.
Juan Sebastián Sánchez Díaz has been using sport to promote health and reconciliation in Colombia for the past six years. A few days before the celebration of the International Day of Sport for Development and Peace (IDSDP), he is proud to be able to point to significant progress.
For Juan Sebastián Sánchez Díaz, 6 April has real meaning. In 2013, the United Nations General Assembly declared the date – which reflects the start of the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896 – to be a 24-hour celebration of the power of sport to foster peace and understanding. This is exactly the message Sánchez Díaz devotes his time to spreading across a country long ravaged by internal conflict.
“We have seen a change of mentality in the majority of the students that we work with,” Sánchez Díaz said of his Olympic Workshop initiative, which takes hockey into state schools and encourages communities to come together in reconciliation.
“Understanding how symbolic athletes are in Colombia as role models for youth, and the power they have to deliver change to multiple communities and individuals, has been one of the messages that has struck me the most.”
While Sánchez Díaz has helped deliver multiple workshops since returning inspired by his stint as a Young Ambassador at the Youth Olympic Games Nanjing 2014, it is a recent development that has got him really excited.
“We have a very special case in Duitama, a city in Colombia, where the students decided to keep the sports club moving forward and decided to start training more people in the community,” Sánchez Díaz explained.
“This has meant that they have had to explore multiple finance options, such as crowdfunding and raffles, to keep their club going. They have been in contact with the Colombian Field Hockey Federation and are on the way to becoming official trainers and even multiplier agents in the country.”
This is a major step forward for a project which has always relied on enthusing coaches and persuading schools to value the benefits hockey can bring. The requirement for sticks and balls, and to a lesser extent pitches on which to play, has also long been a hurdle. But it too is something Sánchez Díaz feels he is making real progress with.
“We are looking at new ways of generating social and sustainable businesses by delivering the Olympic Workshop,” the 26-year-old explained. “We are exploring how to create the hockey sticks, the uniforms and the balls using recycled materials and involving the wider community.
“This means that we can start focusing on two objectives. On the one hand, delivering our workshop and leaving the required sports equipment to generate sports clubs and, on the other hand, generating income for the communities through the use of recycled materials and involving them more with the project.”
It appears to be a win-win equation. As does hockey’s relative anonymity in a country obsessed with football – a trait many observers might, understandably but wrongly, assume to be a significant problem.
“With a sport that not many people in Colombia know about, it is easier to generate discussions where everyone is learning and nobody has strong and unmovable viewpoints,” Sánchez Díaz said. “It allows us to foster a participative environment where everyone feels welcome and we are all learning at the same time.”
The ability to react and adapt, as well to proceed and promote, has been key for a project that has been live since late 2014. The latest big change has been a welcome one, with the Olympic Workshop expanding its offering to reach those with special needs.
“I wouldn’t say we’re at 100 per cent inclusion because each context where we deliver the project is very different,” Sánchez Díaz said. “However, our objective is to reach students with cognitive disabilities in order to start generating the first Para-hockey team in the country.
“In order to do so, we are training the trainers and trying to involve the students’ carers so that it is not only a process with the student but with the family as a whole, particularly in poverty- and violence-stricken locations where our efforts contribute the most to reducing inequalities.
“This means that we are not just focusing on students with special needs. We try to have a project that includes as many people as possible from the communities where we deliver it.”
This trickle-down effect is impressive, as is Sánchez Díaz’s ever-expanding ambition.
“I am always interested in taking the project to more remote areas in the country,” he said. “I also want to keep on exploring other sports that can complement peace and reconciliation processes in the country, contribute to the achievement of the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] and strengthen my work with the Colombian Olympic Committee and national sports federations.”
For the fourth year running, the IOC is delighted to welcome the support of TOP Partner Panasonic, whose generosity has made it possible to expand the YCM+ programme.