Changing ways in Colombia

The hockey players who hit the headlines are those playing in their national colors, scoring amazing goals, saving shots, making do-or-die tackles and generally showing an incredible level of skill and athleticism.

But equally heroic hockey people are to be found doing their bit for the sport in a totally different sphere of performance. Hockey as a catalyst for change is an aspect of our sport that is often done outside of the spotlight but can be as impactful as a World Cup medal or an Olympic gold.

One such person is social entrepreneur Juan Sanchez, who is running an ambitious project in Bogota, the capital of Colombia.

Juan Sanchez became a Young Change Maker, an initiative supported and funded by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), in 2018 after he was accepted by the IOC as one of 42 community-based projects around the globe. His project – using hockey as an activity to promote change in challenging local communities – headlines as Social Change Through Sport”.

Colombia has a tumultuous recent history, with armed conflict between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) spanning 50 years and accounting for more than 220,000 lives. Despite the horror of warfare, the people of Colombia voted against a peace deal in 2016, because the sanctions against FARC were going to be too lenient. A fragile peace has since been called.

It was against this backdrop of violence that Juan decided that hockey could play a role.

“I had seen the power of sport in multiple scenarios [for example, in South Africa, rugby was used as a tool to end apartheid], and I felt something needed to be done. Here was an opportunity to use sport as a tool to achieve social cohesion in a country that after the peace process felt more divided than ever.”

The Young Change Maker program provided Juan with a chance to put substance to his ideas. He contacted schools in marginalized areas and spoke to them about his plans. Soon he was matching hockey coaches to schools as the project rapidly transformed from plans to reality.

For the program to work, Juan needed two factors to come together. He needed coaches to be on board and enthusiastic about delivering hockey in sometimes fractious areas; and he needed the schools to value the benefits that sport could bring.

Cristina Llano was one physical education teacher who needed no persuading. A hockey player herself and originally from the South American home of hockey, Argentina, Cristina is a teacher at the Colegio Gran Bretaña in Bogota.

“Sport opens young peoples’ eyes to new opportunities,” she says. “They develop new physical and social skills and learn to integrate with and respect others”.

“I firmly believe that physical activity is not solely about competition but is also a way of life. It allows people to channel energy positively, instead of with violence or aggression. And it teaches teamwork, solidarity, empathy and helps people find peaceful and reconciliatory resolutions to arguments or conflict.”

Like Juan, Cristina points to the influence of rugby in promoting change for the better. “Here in Colombia, Medellín is traditionally an area with a lot of violence. This has been reduced significantly, through the practice of rugby, where violence is channeled into the game.”

Cristina has worked in Colombia for 17 years, albeit in different schools. Throughout that time, she has been heavily involved in introducing sports as a means of reducing violence and improving the social cohesion of the community. Her liaison with Juan on his project is just one strand of development that the energetic Argentinian is pursuing.

In her current school, Cristina has little difficulty persuading the students to get involved with sport. The families these pupils come from recognize the value of sport and team games. What has proven more difficult is spreading the sport to other schools in the area – there is a chronic lack of equipment and trained coaches, not to mention opposition to compete with.

Like Juan, Cristina is one of life’s doing people”, so she had been waging a campaign to get hockey into schools, colleges and has ideas on how to develop the national team over the next five years.

“I have initiated conversations with colleges and university institutions, to begin the process in them,” she says. “I am taking advantage of the international nature of these institutions drawing on the fact that foreign students will demand hockey provision.

“However, given the lack of training of teachers, the lack of commitment at government level to promote and support the practice of the sport nationwide, the shortage and cost of equipment, we have not yet been able to provide the necessary means for its development.”

A third player in this drive to promote hockey in Colombia is Armando Pinzon, a physical education teacher at the Colegio El Saltire I.E.D in Bogota. Much of Pinzon’s coaching knowledge was gained during a sabbatical in Germany when Armando was one of 12 coaches who traveled from Bogota to Cologne to work with top German hockey coach Rüdiger Hänel.

“My project started after I had the opportunity to travel to Germany to train in the foundations of hockey. When I returned, I started working with my students. I also brought back donated equipment from Germany.”

Armando then set about convincing his fellow sports staff of the value of coaching hockey. The result is eight trained hockey coaches and 2,500 children playing hockey as part of the physical education program at the Colegio El Saltire.

One of the first challenges, aside from a lack of equipment, was to persuade the student cohort that there was a team sport besides football. Armando achieved this by ensuring that his coaching sessions were full of fun and interesting activities. Gradually, the students’ eyes were opened to the potential of this sport.

It has also helped, he says, to see more hockey on television and across social media. International coverage is helping the children understand and appreciate the game more. The presence of hockey at the 2018 Central American and Caribbean Games, which were held at Barranquilla, in Colombia, was a golden opportunity for the people of Colombia to see hockey in all its fast-flowing and exciting glory. Hockey would have received an even greater boost had a Colombian team been represented but that point is still some way off.

In his drive to promote the sport, Armando has encountered the same problems as Cristina – a lack of knowledge among staff, a paucity of equipment and few opportunities to compete against other institutions.

That said, while growth is slow in Bogota, there are pockets of hockey activity springing up across the country. In the city of Itagui in Antioquia several hockey clubs are being formed, and a lot of children are taking up the sport as a result. There are also regular competitions and leagues in that area.

The work of Cristina, Armando and others like them are music to the ears of Juan Sanchez. He believes that hockey development has to start in the schools and colleges, although he concedes funding must come from elsewhere and any project’s end goal has to be economic sustainability.

“I believe one of the most important partners are schools and education institutions, since they will allow the sport to grow in a systemic way. Private funding is also essential for continuing with the projects so I always try to speak with corporate citizens or social responsibility managers that can help either by offering volunteers or providing specific things that the project requires. But each project has to be to achieve economic sustainability so it doesn’t need to depend on external partners.”

When he set out on his project, Juan says he was met with some skepticism because of his youthfulness – he is 25. But, enthusiasm and a rock-solid vision for the future is winning people over. However, the dual challenge is now to win people over to not just his way of thinking but also to accept a sport that is not well-known in the South American country.

“Once participants start to understand the basics, they really get into hockey and start playing it with great passion. But field hockey is not very well known in Colombia and therefore people don’t have previous knowledge to become engaged with the sport. More work has to be done to explain the basics of the sport. I feel that hockey in Colombia needs to adapt to both urban and rural contexts in order to increase its reach. This means that knowledgeable coaches are needed in order to make these adaptations without sacrificing the spirit of the sport.”

Adaptations of the kind Juan refers include using synthetic 5-a-side football pitches in city centers. They provide a consistent surface for skill development and the more skillful participants can utilize a fast playing surface. But as Juan explains, it really is a case of thinking outside the box: “I am constantly trying to think of ways to use whatever resources are available to play in order to promote the sport, but I have to confess it’s one of the biggest challenges.”

The ambition at the heart of all three interviewees is for hockey in Colombia to have a viable, sustainable national team. That is a proud ambition and one that people can relate to, but the less tangible results of the hard work and commitment of Cristina, Armando and Juan is the way their efforts are playing a small part in bringing something even more precious than Olympic glory – a chance for social change and peace.