The Ginásios Experimentais Olímpicos (Experimental Olympic Gymnasia), an initiative of the city of Rio de Janeiro, are schools located on the fringes of the slums or favelas. Most of their students, who are aged 11 to 15, also come from the favelas. Their daily routine includes a full programme of classes, including at least two hours’sport, and three meals a day. ‘Some of the kids serve themselves three helpings at breakfast,’ observed Herbert Wolff, Head of International Affairs at NOC*NSF, who was closely involved in the project from the outset. ‘You could see that it came from real hunger. That affected me deeply.’
In October 2009, after the IOC had assigned the 2016 Olympic Games to Rio de Janeiro, a delegation from the city visited Beijing to learn how the Chinese had tackled the 2008 Games. During this trip the delegation also learned about China’s combination of sport and education at primary schools. The Brazilians were not familiar with this concept, but determined to introduce it in Rio to get young people involved in future Olympic and Paralympic Games. Three years later, in 2012, the first of the new ginásios opened in the district of Santa Teresa. By now Rio has four of these schools, each one attended by 350 to 400 students.
The curriculum, which is unique to Brazil, give students a combination of sport and education in which standards of conduct and values take pride of place. Many of the students come from Rio’s slums. ‘Most of them see no future, no prospect of improving their lives,’ says Wolff. ‘Sadly, they come to believe that they cannot change their lives, that everything will always stay the same. But the GEO schools change everything for them.’
Teaching life skills is one of the main points of emphasis in the education programme, which is provided free of charge. Sport provides an opportunity to apply these skills. The students were selected on the basis of tests in arithmetic and language skills and on the basis of their passion – rather than pure talent – for sport. The GEO project does not focus on training future top athletes but on the personal development of the students, to improve their prospects of success in society.
The Dutch connection NOC*NSF and the Dutch Consulate in Rio have been involved in the GEO project since 2012. In the first place, because both parties believe in the powerful potential of combining sport and education. NOC*NSF is also acting on the basis of the principle, as Herbert Wolff says, ‘We don’t want to just take something away, in the form of winning medals, but we also want to give something.’ In concrete terms, NOC*NSF and its sponsors, the Partners in Sport, made it possible to send a present or past top athletes to Rio every six months to give workshops and clinics.
The Dutch Consulate has also participated; it helped to set up the partnership between NOC*NSF and the education secretariat in Rio de Janeiro. This led to a memorandum of understanding between NOC*NSF and the city of Rio. The Consulate has also repeatedly drawn attention to the GEO project with the media and among potential partners in both the Netherlands and Brazil.
Past and present Dutch top athletes
In May 2013, the former top judoka Elisabeth Willeboordse became the first to visit the GEO schools for a number of clinics and presentations. Then came Ron Zwerver (volleyball), the swimmers Marleen Veldhuis and Johan Kenkhuis, the Paralympic athlete Marlou van Rhijn, the wheelchair basketball player Inge Huitzing, table tennis player Trinko Keen, another delegation of swimmers including Marcel Wouda, Sharon van Rouwendaal, Ferry Weertman and Marcel Schouten, the Dutch korfball youth team and finally, in the spring of 2016, the swimmers Hinkelien Schreuder and Bastiaan Tamminga.
The Olympic athletes gave a presentation about their personal development, their sporting dreams, their setbacks and the way they overcame them, the highs and lows of their career, and the meaning of Olympic values like respect, friendship and the pursuit of excellence to their sporting careers. Each one also gave clinics in their branch of sport.
What we saw’, says Wolff, ‘is that with each visit a number of children were really inspired and tackled things differently afterwards. We have to look at that – at those few individuals to whom we can really give something that lasts.’ The students thought it fantastic that Dutch top athletes had taken the trouble to go all the way to Rio. For them. It was not just the clinics that made an impression on them; even more important, perhaps, were the personal stories told by the top athletes. Firstly, every one of the athletes who participated said that they recalled the visit with feelings of great warmth.
From the outset in 2012 the NOC*NSF was clear that it would withdraw from the GEO project after the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. NOC*NSF’s aim was to provide inspiration and an initial galvanising force for others, who could take over the baton after the Games. Enthusiasm for the project has soared in the Netherlands over the past few years. For instance, Elisabeth Willeboordse’s foundation Judo2Inspire gave GEO students an opportunity to visit the Netherlands, and Trinko Keen collected material to boost the development of table tennis at the schools. Other initiatives are planned, and NOC*NSF will continue to work on strengthening the ties and partnership between the participating Dutch groups and the GEO schools.
Particpating Dutch Sporters
Elisabeth Willeboordse – Olympic bronze medallist Beijing 2008, judo -68kg
Ron Zwerver – Olympic gold and silver medallist Barcelona 1992 and Atlanta 1996, volleyball
Marleen Veldhuis – Olympic gold, silver and bronze medallist Athens 2004, Beijing 2008 and London 2012, swimming
Johan Kenkhuis – Olympic silver and bronze medallist Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004, swimming
Marlou van Rhijn – Paralympic gold and silver medallist London 2012 and Rio 2016, athletics
Inge Huitzing – Paralympic Games London 2012, wheelchair basketball
Trinko Keen – Olympic Games Atlanta 1996, Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004, table tennis
Hinkelien Schreuder – Olympic gold and silver medallist Beijing 2008 and London 2012, swimming
Bastiaan Tamminga – Former Dutch record holder, swimming