Since 2012, the NOC of the Netherlands (NOC*NSF) has worked with Olympic and Paralympic athletes to support the recently created GEO-schools in Rio de Janeiro. Approximately 1,500 children from the age of 12 – 15 are part of the city's Olympic Experimental Schools (Ginásio Experimental Olimpico or GEO schools).
There are four GEO schools in Rio de Janeiro, located at the edges of city’s slums or favelas. GEO schools are unique in Brazil as the children can practice between 1.5 and 3 hours of sport per day, have classes all day long, and receive free meals. GEO schools differ from regular schools in Rio, which have 1 or 2 hours of sports per week and are limited to 4 hours of class per day.
A variety of Dutch Olympic and Paralympic athletes conducted sport clinics at the GEO schools to educate the children about the Olympic Values and the use of sport to deal with both hardship and success. The visiting athletes also trained together with the children and gave advice on sports such as: swimming, judo, track and field, etc.
Hinkelien Schreuder experienced the power of Olympism through her involvement in the programme. Schreuder won the Olympic gold and bronze medal in the 4x100 freestyle relay at the Olympics in Beijing (2008) and London (2012) respectively and is a former world record holder in the 100-meter individual medley.
Schreuder visited all GEO schools and went beyond the sport clinics, as she also shared her experience with the schools’ physical education teachers. The clinics revealed an eagerness in the children to learn and demonstrated the opportunity sport has to help children improve their intellectual skills.
A young boy told me he was often bullied in class. Since he started to play sport, he felt more confident and his school results became much better than ever before.”
Hinkelien Schreuder, Olympic gold and bronze medallist
One of the Paralympic athletes that visited the GEO schools was Marlou van Rhijn who successfully defended her gold medals at the 100 and 200 meter athletics from London, at the Paralympics in Rio. Van Rhijn, who was born without lower legs is also known as the “Blade-babe” and runs with the aid of artificial limbs.
Upon arriving at the school, she was surprised by the level of knowledge of Paralympic sports amongst the children. Most important to Van Rhijn was to ensure that the children enjoyed playing sports irrespective of the situation they were in.
Normally when I go in to a school with little kids, they are sometimes afraid of seeing someone putting on running blades, but these kids knew what blades were and they really enjoyed doing sports.
Marlou van Rhijn, Paralympic Gold medallist
Despite the enthusiasm of the children, Van Rhijn was faced with emotional moments during her visit. One of them, she recalls, was when a girl was telling her story and said:
Now I know that even if something looks impossible, such as running without legs, it still can be possible.
The GEO project did not only engage with Olympic sports. A delegation of world-class korfball players went in October 2014 to Rio de Janeiro. Korfball is a team-sport that is played in more than 60 countries across the world. The sport differentiates itself from others by being a truly mixed sport, a team always consists of an equal number of men and women. As such, the sport taught the children an important message on gender equality.
Some of the children from the GEO schools stay in touch with the athletes via Facebook and continue to ask questions about their sports performance, dreams, or other topics.
During the Games, the GEO project was formally handed-over to the Rio city authorities during a celebratory gathering of children, athletes, and officials in the Holland House. The engagement of a National Olympic Committee and athletes in the pilot with GEO schools was an argument for the city’s minister of sport to continue with the pilot and increase the number of schools. In the meantime, the NOC*NSF has started conversations with Tokyo to explore how Dutch athletes can support the local education system in a similar way in the run up to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.