SI Vault
Alexander Wolff
September 26, 2011
In grassroots programs involving tens of thousands of participants around the globe, visionaries are using athletics to tackle the most pressing problems of the developing world—from AIDS in Africa to violence in Rio. Can such projects make a lasting difference, or is the dream of salvation through sports too grandiose? SI senior writer Alexander Wolff set off on a yearlong journey to find the answer
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September 26, 2011

Sports Saves The World

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I wanted to see how, exactly. So after the dousing of the Vancouver flame, I lit out for far corners of this Imperfect World in search of other friends of sport who, like Koss, had broken from their bubbles to heed the Adagio call of Lillehammer.


It's not a classic hillside slum, but Complexo da Maré is easily one of Rio's largest favelas—a sprawling neighborhood of 135,000 people hard by the route visitors will travel between the airport and the beaches when they come to this city for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. Rival drug gangs recruit kids as foot soldiers and sort out differences with gunplay. Luke Dowdney has driven me into the favela beneath weltering electrical wires and past huddled walk-ups. He parks our car and we stroll a block. A boy of no more than 15 preens in an intersection, automatic weapon slung over one shoulder.

Dowdney, a former British universities light middleweight boxing champion, came to Brazil in 1995 to study street children in the northern city of Recife for his dissertation in social anthropology. He was haunted by the murder of two kids he had grown close to and by the words of a 12-year-old drug trafficker who told him, "I'm going to die young, but I'm going to live well." One day a group of glue-sniffing boys asked him to show them some boxing moves. "When they'd get in a stance, they'd leave the glue behind," says Dowdney, 38, "and a light went off in my head."

In 2000, Dowdney founded a boxing and martial arts program in Maré called Luta Pela Paz, or Fight for Peace, and five years later he opened a training and educational center. On its first floor, boys and girls practice boxing, wrestling and the Brazilian martial art capoeira. In a suite of second-floor classrooms the same kids learn computer skills, citizenship and conflict resolution; they also practice martial arts in a third-floor matted dojo. Boxer Douglas Noronha, whose brother was shot to death in '01, is one of about 4,600 young Cariocas to go through the program. "You'd think I'd have become more violent," he tells me. "In fact, I've become a more controlled person. It's all about the self-confidence and discipline of not finding yourself in a position where, before you know it, somebody's got a gun."

Dowdney introduces me to another fighter, Roberto Custódio, who was 14 when his father was ordered out of the favela by a drug trafficker who was jealous of his relationship with a local woman. When he returned to look in on his family, which he supported as a bus driver, the drug lord settled the matter in his usual way, with bullets.

Figuring that fitness and martial arts would help him square accounts with his father's killer, Roberto turned to Luta Pela Paz. Then the unexpected happened. The program transformed his bloodlust into something altogether new. As he developed the discipline that boxing demands—and took the academic classes required of all participants—relatives marveled that his anger gradually drained away. Last October, Roberto, now 24, won the light welterweight gold medal at the Brazilian championships, and he is likely to qualify for the London Olympics as a welterweight. "Our program isn't just about getting rid of energy," Dowdney tells me. "It's also about rigor and values. The disciplined fighter will always beat the overwrought fighter. Luta means fight, but it also means struggle, in a good way."

Dowdney hopes to develop a funding stream from a new line of fightwear and lifestyle clothing called Luta ( "If the line hits, it becomes the engine," says Dowdney, who runs a second Fight for Peace center in East London that has trained 1,700 boxers. "We're not about being a traditional charity. It's like boxing: You get out what you put in. If you're not trained, you don't win. That's life. You've got to step up."

Last spring, as a crew filmed a commercial for the Luta brand in a ring set up in a warehouse at the edge of the favela, a gunfight broke out between police and traffickers. The film crew dove under the ring for cover. That's what favela dwellers such as Roberto Custódio deal with. Says Dowdney, "Luta is about celebrating the real heroes in the favelas, young people born into extraordinary adversity who get painted as victims when they're actually aspirational heroes."


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