Olympics give Rio slum kids hope – for survival

Rio de Janeiro: – For kids in one of Rio’s toughest slums, the childhood dream of Olympic glory comes with extra motivation: a better chance to stay alive.

 Brazilian Olympic boxer Roberto Custodio grew up facing daily violence, including the murder of his father, in the Mare slum, or favela. And if it hadn’t been for his transformation into a top athlete, he might have gone the same way.

“I saw that sport could give you a role,” he told AFP at his training base in Sao Paulo. “I wanted to be recognized as a boxer, not a criminal. And now I can win the Olympics in my own town.”

Custodio, 29, got his break at Fight for Peace, a gym started by Briton Luke Dowdney in the Mare to offer poor youths lessons in boxing, martial arts — and life.

The gym’s neat, blue walls and tidy courtyard stand out in the warren of often poorly built, half-finished houses that make up the favela, home to an estimated 100,000 people, most of them working-class families.

Rio’s international airport and the famed Maracana stadium where politicians, VIPs and tourists will watch the Olympics open on August 5 are nearby. But the Mare is a world apart, with areas more like a “Mad Max” film than the shiny new Rio officials want to project.

On a recent visit, a Fight for Peace vehicle carrying AFP journalists had to pass through a roadblock manned by drug traffickers at the favela’s edge.

Men sat at a nearby sidewalk table on which lay a handgun and what appeared to be an array of drugs, all openly on display.

A little farther down the street a man in flipflops held a black assault rifle. Several others roamed on motorcycles carrying walkie-talkies and pistols in their belts.

“Don’t look at them,” the Fight for Peace driver warned, “and under no circumstances take photographs.”

– Local hero –

Inside the gym, a dozen high-spirited girls and boys of between six and 12 years old punched pads and hopped through hoops. Soon after, a class for teenagers started, some of them already highly skilled.

“Sport has done a lot for me. I wouldn’t have been here today otherwise. I could have been running with a gun in the street,” 16-year-old boxer Daniel Suarez said.

“Most of my friends say, ‘I’ve chosen another life, I chose crime.’ But I have chosen differently: I chose to fight, to compete, to do sport.”

Custodio trains in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city, but often returns to the Mare, where he’s a local hero.

“He’s our idol. He inspires us with his humility and just who he is. He makes young people here feel like someone because he comes, he trains and talks with them,” said Raissa Lima, 20, one of the female boxers.

Boxing trainer Antonio Cruz de Jesus, known to everyone as Gibi, said the almost $10 billion spent by Rio on the Olympics doesn’t seem to trickle down to the Mare. Thanks to Custodio, however, “the young here are looking forward it.”

– Rules instead of chaos –

Teaching a violent sport might initially seem a strange way to make model citizens.

But Gibi explained that in a chaotic community where the police are feared even more than the narco gunmen, the main lessons of boxing go far beyond merely learning to hit opponents.

“It’s about discipline, rules. Everything in your life changes. That is what I pass on to the students,” Gibi, a former Brazilian team member, said.

Bruno Brito, a 19-year-old who has had 42 amateur fights, said the gym only allows children to train if they keep up with schoolwork. “That gets you off the street,” he said. “Many kids end up in narcotrafficking if they don’t study.”

At least the slum boxers can expect to be allowed free time to watch Custodio fight on television this August. He’ll also be thinking of them when he steps into that Olympic boxing ring.

“I don’t just represent Brazil,” Custodio said. “I represent my favela.”

Source: AFP