Mike Rowbottom

I love sport. But.

The new running shoes - have they compromised the idea of improving through one’s own efforts? When one can buy, often and expensively, say, a four per cent improvement? Then again, it’s not like we were running in bare feet before…

Football. I still dream it. But have VAR rulings - yes I know Frank Lampard’s goal should have counted at the 2014 World Cup - but have they deadened the natural feel of the game? Has the sickening amount of money at the top level corrupted football? Or the idea that you aren’t a supporter unless you have a pint in your hand and you’ve had a crafty bet?

Doping. Can we ever be free of it? I believe that while there is still one clean sportsman or sportswoman we have a responsibility to fight against it. And I believe they are in the majority. But…

Sometimes sport can feel like a sad business. Yet sometimes sport is revealed, afresh, as a thing of beauty,

Yesterday I covered the virtual JudoFest event put together in these our pandemic times by the International Judo Federation. Among the many former judoka taking part was Brazilian Flávio Canto, who won the 2003 Pan American title and a bronze at the 2004 Athens Olympics in the under-81 kilograms class.

In 2003 he created Instituto Reação, an organisation that promotes human development and social inclusion through sports and education, using judo as the main model.

For much of the time the focus has been on engaging young people in the poorest parts of Brazilian society, starting in Rio de Janeiro’s largest favela, Rocinha.

Among those the Institute has played a part in developing is Rafaela Silva Lopes, who won the under-57kg world title in Rio in 2013, and three years later took Olympic gold in her home city. She trained on mats that had been installed by Instituto Reação in her favela, known as Cidade de Deus.

But Canto is not primarily seeking to nurture future Olympic champions. His concerns are wider and, dare one say, deeper.

"Twenty-three per cent or Rio’s population lives in favelas, where you have an amazing problem with sustainable solutions," he told JudoFest. "You have half the country without minimum conditions of water at home.

"What we try to give the kids in our Institute - our mantra is building black belts on and off the mat.

"You have to teach them all the principles of judo - respect, you have to understand how we can respect our planet, our environment, our home. For our generation it is probably the most important issue we have.

"We have more than two million judo players in Brazil, so it has a pretty strong power here. So influencing the young generations to be able to understand their responsibility to sustainable decisions is pretty important, pretty big."

Down the years, learning judo has been coupled with an education programme.

"The kids train in judo, but we also teach them about responsibility in changing the world," Canto, who is an IJF Climate Ambassador, said. 

The Rocinha favela in Rio de Janeiro, where Brazilian Olympic medallist Flávio Canto began teaching judo to children in 2003 ©Getty Images
The Rocinha favela in Rio de Janeiro, where Brazilian Olympic medallist Flávio Canto began teaching judo to children in 2003 ©Getty Images

"Once we change one thing we change a lot of things, we change the following generation. That means showing they can also be part of this, giving them the responsibility of making the changes they want to see.

"When you talk about the favelas, one of the favelas we are in is Rocinha, the biggest favela in Latin America. Once you get in Rocinha you see garbage in the street. So kids have to realise that that street is their home as well.

"You don’t have the state inside Rocinha. It’s like a completely different world. Once you are in the favelas here you have even a different law. You have the drug dealers and the militia, the former policemen that command the favelas.

"In Rio de Janeiro you have 60 per cent of the city controlled by drug gangs or the militia, so we are living in a very tough situation here, so you have to give the children the responsibility of changing their environment not depending on the state or things from outside the favelas. It’s about their choice to make it better.

"I believe in metaphors, and we give them simple missions, like the young kids go to the beaches and collect the garbage from the sand. Those kind of missions we do a lot. And in doing so I think they understand that they are strong about to be important.

"I think it’s all about understanding that you are important. That the change you believe, you want to see, it comes with you as well. When you give children self esteem they understand they are able to be part of this big change.

"If you don’t feel important enough, you just, you don’t care. You think: 'I’m not going to be able to change anything.' But once they believe they are important - and I think what we all try to do with our kids is make them understand that they are very important.

"When are working with a kid that comes from a different place, a tough environment, they get raised to believe that they can’t be very big, because their parents didn’t study and weren’t able to do what they dreamed about when they were little kids, and to change all the mindset.

"Once you change it, it gets easier."

Rafaela Silva Lopes won Olympic gold in her home city at Rio 2016 ©Getty Images
Rafaela Silva Lopes won Olympic gold in her home city at Rio 2016 ©Getty Images

Canto’s commitment to this cause, he believes, was beneficial also to himself and his judo career.

"It started back in 2000," he recalled. "I lost a trial to reach the Sydney Olympics. And when I got back to Brazil I understood it was time to do something that I believed to be for my city, for my country, for the world. And as judo was the thing I liked the most I started teaching judo in Rocinha.

"Before that in the previous five or six years I was doing things with my friends like, at Christmas we would go on the streets and donate food and clothes, and we would go to orphanages. But only like one day at a time - we weren’t changing anybody’s lives."

Canto comes from a relatively wealthy background - he was born in Oxford, England, where his father had a doctorate in nuclear physics, and he moved to Brazil when he was two. As he grew up in Rio he became aware of the huge social divisions around him.

"I couldn’t be an athlete that only went from training to eating to sleeping, I wanted to do something to give back to society," he said.

"I worked in advertising - I still own an advertising agency - but giving something back made me a better competitor in my opinion and worked for me. It may not be the same for everyone.

"Later when I won a medal at the Olympics it was important for the programme because people then understood that top athletes do something back for society and we take our role and make society a little bit better with things we can do.

"We have our communications behind us, our network, we know people and together with this we can do something back. Because we have some power, some leverage."

 Flávio Canto reacts after receiving the IJF Judo for Children award during yesterday's virtual JudoFest ©Getty Images
Flávio Canto reacts after receiving the IJF Judo for Children award during yesterday's virtual JudoFest ©Getty Images

He recalled how, during Christmas in 2000, he and a group of friends went out onto the streets of Rio to distribute food and clothes.

"There were many, many people in the streets - poor people, babies, kids," Canto said.

"And it was such a contrast with what I had had a couple of hours earlier with my family.

"I got back home very sad. And I think that was when I understood that we had to do something different. I didn’t know judo was going to be so strong, but when I started teaching judo in the favelas it was a big change for them and a big change for me.

"I say that I climbed Rocinha - because it is on a mountain - as a black belt, and in the first day I got down Rocinha with a white belt, because I understood that what I was going to do there, I was not going to teach I was going to learn as well.

"I even stopped using the words 'social inclusion'. Because when you use that phrase normally you talk about bringing the people to the top of the pyramid as if what’s at the bottom is useless, not so worthy.

"I knew what I needed to do was integrate - people from tough neighbourhoods with people from the rich neighbourhoods.

"In Rio you have a city - a wonderful city, but you have invisible walls throughout the city, even in the beaches. We don’t have communication because we have the private schools and the public schools, so poor and rich people they don’t get together ever. So you grow up with indifference.

"I believe that judo, and sport in general, is a good place to get all people together."

The Rio 2016 Olympics and Paralympics brought many people together, but the Brazilian city, according to Flávio Canto, is still full of
The Rio 2016 Olympics and Paralympics brought many people together, but the Brazilian city, according to Flávio Canto, is still full of "invisible walls" ©Getty Images

In the last couple of years the institute has branched out into working in private schools, with programmes that conclude with tournaments arranged involving the wealthy pupils and children from the favelas.

"Once you put them all together the kids from the favelas see value in the kids from the private schools, and the kids from the private schools see value in the kids from the favelas. And they can grow up with a different mindset.

"We are putting everything in videos so we can go to many projects in Brazil. We have so far 2,300 kids, and we have a population of 210 million so we are very far from what we can be. When we have technology and videos we can go a lot further. In this way the pandemic has helped us.

"So this is the idea now, to integrate people from different origins. Put them all together, using sports to get closer to each other. There’s a magic when you get to know people. You never see a favela as you saw it before. It happened with me.

"When I think about judo I think about standing up. More than throwing someone or falling. Because we fall a lot. We all have fallen many times in our training sessions and careers, but we also have stood up every time we fell.

"So judo is about reacting - this is the beauty of our sport. I think it has that symbolism to judo, and to everyone that joins our Institute. The kids, the students, the coaches, everyone that works with us, the volunteers - we all want to see a better place, a better world."

Canto was the recipient yesterday of the IJF’s Judo for Children award. It was well merited, and a timely reminder of what sport can do.