When drug violence spilled into the hacienda of his family-run business in the Venezuelan state of Aragua, about 40 miles west of Caracas, Alberto Vollmer, the CEO of Santa Teresa rum company and a former rugby player, confronted the gangs directly. Recognizing that members crave discipline and a family atmosphere as much as they thrill to violence, Vollmer conscripted gangs as intact teams into a rugby program while also providing life-skills training, education, apprenticeships and jobs. Since its founding in 2003, Project Alcatraz has graduated dozens of members into society, and reports a nearly 88% decrease in the regional murder rate. "Rugby is tough and confrontational, but at the same time you need self-control," says Vollmer, who has consulted on similar programs in Colombia and El Salvador. "They're giving us their identity, which is even better than giving us their weapons."
British soccer coach Scotty Lee was in Bosnia during the mid-'90s when a mine exploded among a group of children playing the game near an airport in Sarajevo, killing three and maiming four. Today Lee's organization, Spirit of Soccer, deals in a simple acronym: ERW, explosive remnants of war, which killed nearly 4,000 people worldwide in 2009. The antidote is another simple acronym: MRE, mine-risk education. Staffers have worked with governments and soccer federations in Bosnia, Cambodia, Iraq, Kosovo and Moldova, training coaches to teach kids how to recognize the signs of land mines, such as fruit rotting on a tree while nearby people go hungry. "I'm trying to teach the skills to live with these weapons until they're out," says Lee, whose program has worked with more than 100,000 children. "I tell them, 'If you're going to be the next David Beckham or Tim Howard, you'll need your arms and legs.'"
A Dutch lawyer and women's rights activist, Astrid Aafjes, had a revelation in 2007 when she ran in the Course Feminine de Casablanca, a 10K race organized by and for Moroccan women. By building self-confidence, she thought, sport could embolden women in the developing world to push back against such social impediments as arranged marriages, honor killings and disadvantages in rape laws, inheritance and land rights. The network Aafjes created, Women Win, now funds 26 programs that advance women's rights in 19 countries.
A passage from French philosopher Michel Foucault leaped off the page at Heather Cameron one day. "It was about the importance of testing limits and challenging what you think is possible," says Cameron, who was doing doctoral research in political science in Berlin. She founded Boxgirls International in the city's gritty Kreuzberg district to help working-class young women, especially those from Turkish backgrounds, develop self-reliance. The program has now expanded into Kenya and South Africa. "If they're ready to step into the ring, they've already won," says Cameron, who'd been a fighter in her native Toronto. "The paradox is that soccer is too unfeminine and swimming too immodest—but because this is self-defense, it's O.K. with most of the fathers."
The 1994 murder of soccer player Andrés Escobar might have been just one more of Colombia's nearly 27,000 annual homicides during that drug-saturated era. But to Jürgen Griesbeck, a German studying in Medellín, his favorite sport had blood on its hands, for Escobar had been targeted after scoring an own goal during Colombia's loss to the U.S. in the World Cup that year. "I couldn't just go on with my life," says Griesbeck. Within two years he had established Fútbol para la Paz—Football for Peace. Games went off without referees, to force players to practice conflict resolution on the pitch. Girls had to score first, which undermined the machismo dynamic. Extra points were awarded for sportsmanship, to challenge a culture of corruption as deeply embedded in sport as in society. Griesbeck eventually turned the program's management over to locals, and today he runs Street Football World, an umbrella organization of 89 programs in 55 countries that uses soccer as a tool for good. FIFA now has partnered with Street Football World to open 20 Football for Hope centers around Africa.