Tamara Vega and her mother had a goal.
“I come from a difficult background,” says Tamara, a 30-year-old woman from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. “My mother had to work two shifts to make ends meet.”
For years, Ciudad Juárez has struggled with a high crime and drug use rate, and Tamara’s family was no exception.
“I have close relatives who are in prison,” Tamara says frankly. “And others who have gone to rehabilitation centers for using psychoactive drugs.”
But Tamara’s mother wanted a different life for Tamara and her sister, one away from the violence and crime that pervaded everyday life in the city.
Tamara’s mother found that opening through enrolling her daughters in sports at a young age.
“She really believed that sports could provide us with a safe space to just ‘be’ and develop,” Tamara says.
And develop she did – Tamara’s talent and hard work took her all the way to the 2012 London Olympics, where she competed in the modern pentathlon (an event consisting of fencing, freestyle swimming, equestrian show jumping, pistol shooting, and cross country running). She returned to the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016, finishing 16th.
Though not everyone becomes an Olympian, Tamara says her story is not all that unique. “There are many stories of young athletes who, by participating in sports, have managed to stay away from crime and drugs.
“I love sports, they were a blessing for me,” she continues. “Sports gave me the chance to look for a goal, to be someone in life – to be able to tell myself that I am more than the environment I lived in!”
Sports have the power to reach out to young people by building important life skills, promoting values of justice, tolerance, respect and equality, and fostering inclusion and social cohesion.
Sports can be a particularly impactful tool for reaching at-risk youth. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC’s) recent Global Study on Homicide reaffirms that globally, young male aged 15 to 29 years, including in Mexico, account for a disproportionate share of offenders and victims. Similarly, the study shows that, young people, especially male, who come from unstable, dysfunctional family environments that are associated with poverty and high crime neighborhoods (and who are not in school or employed) have an increased risk of being recruited by gangs and engaging in crime and drugs.
Sports can provide an innovative and impactful platform to reach out to these at-risk young people and help them build important social and life skills while supporting their education and learning, physical and mental health, and positive social behavior. Sports can also help create safe public spaces and a conducive learning environment in which young people can positively interact and develop. In doing so, sports address important risk and protective factors associated with violence, crime and drug use, especially amongst youth, including those that are in contact with the law.
Roberto, a young man from Mexico, grew up in a deprived neighborhood. “I liked bad things,” he says simply.
“I had been an alcoholic since I was 12 years old,” he says. “And I used drugs for the first time when I was 19 years old – amphetamines, marijuana, and cocaine.”
Roberto wound up being sentenced to ten years in prison when he was 23. But while in prison, he got the chance to participate in a boxing program called “Knockout: Don’t Throw the Towel” implemented by the Red Viral A. C., a civil society organization supporting youth through sport, art and education. His life changed.
“I don’t have the words to explain what boxing is for me today,” Roberto says.
“I had never practiced sports before, but being in jail was the only escape from my reality,” he continues. “Sports gave me a 360-degree turn to my life.”
Roberto says that today he is a different person. “I don't need drugs; I don’t need alcohol; I am a person who has started to be grateful and to see the positive side of life.”
Boxing for him is more than a game. Roberto explains how sport has helped him identify, express, and control his emotion, connect to people, develop important skills, believe to himself, and make the right decisions. “Sports are so important for mental health and development,” he says, encouraging everybody to engage in sports.
Participation of young people in targeted sport programmes can prevent their victimization and engagement in violence and crime and empower them to fulfil their potentials as agents of positive change in their communities, supporting crime prevention efforts.
After his release more than a year ago - facilitated thanks to a scholarship provided by the boxing programme – Roberto continued his training in boxing and acquired a formal accreditation as a boxing trainer. “I am so happy to have practiced boxing in prison and to have obtained a certificate as a trainer from the World Boxing Council,” he says.
“Today I can be a trainer of other young people,” he says, and help them through boxing the way he was helped. As a coach, Roberto avoids telling young people what to do or instructing them in an imposing way. “I rather prefer to encourage and empower them, telling them how well they do in sports, because sometimes, motivation is the only thing they need.”
Tamara also wants to help other athletes and youth to build resilience to violence through sports and find the power to change their lives.
“If I had the opportunity to tell young people something,” she says, “I would tell them that, although sometimes it is difficult to see beyond your surroundings, in reality there are more paths to choose and follow in life. You can become a better version of yourself.”
The Sport against Crime: Outreach, Resilience, Empowerment of at-risk youth (SC:ORE) global initiative, a collaboration between UNODC and the IOC, aims to combat youth crime through the transformative power of sport , and builds on UNODC Line Up Live Up programme, and the IOC Olympic Education Values Programme (OVEP). SC:ORE is being piloted in Senegal and Mexico.In Mexico, it was launched on 18-19 January during a two-day event organized in Mexico City by UNODC, National Olympic Committee of Mexico and the State of Mexico. The launch brought together representatives of various government sectors, including from crime prevention, criminal justice and security sector, sport actors, including sport federations, academia, civil society, and young people.