“I was very hyperactive as a child and my mom didn’t know what to do with all my energy,” says Diogo Silva. “I used to get into fights with other children because I couldn’t stand losing any games with them.”
Searching for a way for Diogo to focus his energy, his mother steered him towards sports. He tried karate and then judo, and didn’t like them – but when he encountered taekwondo, it was different. “The taekwondo master really inspired me and I fell in love immediately with the sport. I was 7 years old and that master changed my life.”
Diogo embarked on an athletic career that made him a national symbol of taekwondo in Brazil. He represented his country in the Olympic Games in London in 2012 and Athens in 2004; in the Pan-American Games, where he won gold in 2007 and bronze in 2003; and in the 1998 World Youth Taekwondo Championships, where he won bronze.
Today, Diogo has turned the drive and commitment that fueled his success in taekwondo towards helping vulnerable children in Brazil discover the power of sports. “Of course I am proud of what I achieved as an athlete,” he says. “But I am much more proud of being a Sports Caravan volunteer here in Brazil since 2007.”
“For me, sports are life,” says Diogo. “Taekwondo taught me many important lessons that have helped me ever since I was a child: the importance of always playing fair and respecting others, of discipline and focus and working hard if you want to succeed, never giving up if you want to win.”
“All children in Brazil know our most popular sport – football,” he says. “But many aren’t exposed to other sports which Sports Caravan introduces girls and boys to, like taekwondo, volleyball and basketball. Different sports open up many more opportunities for children, enhance their social and life skills, and can help make their dreams come true.”
During the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, children from some the city’s impoverished favelas have an opportunity to participate in Sports Caravan. Today, Diogo introduced 8-year old Rafaela to taekwondo.
“The only sports I know are football from television, and playing in the water at the beach,” says Rafaela. “I can’t play any sports in my neighborhood and we don’t do many at school. I never saw taekwondo before and it seems like a lot of fun.”
“I think that the best part about sports is you get to have fun with your friends,” she says. “I’d like to learn different sports and to try taekwondo again. The Sports Caravan was really fun today!”
“Every child has the right to play sports,” says Diogo. “Opening up new experiences for children like Rafaela means a lot to me.”
During Diogo’s first year volunteering for Sports Caravan, in the state of Sergipe, one small boy made a lasting impression. “During the three days of a Sports Caravan, children have the opportunity to learn and play many different sports, but this boy simply wouldn’t leave me – he loved taekwondo so much.”
Diogo saw himself in the boy: “He reminded me of when I was a little boy and was introduced to taekwondo by the master. We spent a lot of time together and I taught him everything I could. At the end of the three days, he had learned some basic taekwondo moves – and he learned that it was fun, and it paid off to practice.”
Sports can make a big difference in the lives of children from communities affected by violence, like many of Rio’s favelas. “Sports provide children a healthy outlet and escape, offering them alternatives to violence or the risk of drugs and alcohol while also helping them develop social skills like fair play, respect and teamwork. Sports really are universal and can also help break gender, racial and economic barriers because they encourage girls and boys from different backgrounds to play and get along together.”
“I know that sports have the power to transform their lives and can help them realize their goals. Sports are life, and for many children – like that little boy in Sergipe – Sports Caravans can inspire them to have a better future,” says Diogo, now a taekwondo master himself. “More than all my medals, I’m proud to be volunteering and inspiring children to get involved and benefit from the power of sports.”
Kent Page is a senior UNICEF communication advisor based in New York and currently on mission with UNICEF Brazil.
Sports Caravans are a social initiative of Disney and ESPN in partnership with UNICEF, the Sports and Education Institute and the Mpumalanga Institute. Each month, children and adolescents in a different vulnerable community in Brazil participate in a three-day event that includes instruction in football, volleyball, tennis, taekwondo, basketball and other sports, taught by specialized teachers and inspired by athletes like Diogo. Workshops for local teachers show them how to include sports and physical activities in the daily lives of children in their communities. Since 2005, more than 350,000 children and 40,000 teachers have benefited from Sports Caravan events across Brazil.