Jarbas Meneghini brings the Olympics to Brazil’s favelas for city's poorest kids

Jarbas Meneghini brings the Olympics to Brazil’s favelas for city's poorest kids

For some of Rio’s poor youngsters, this sport fan’s house is as close as they’ll get to this year’s Games


Jarbas Meneghini (right) believes his Games give poor children valauble life skills.
Photos: AFP

Crowned by wreaths, faces filled with emotion, the athletes mount the podium to the strains of the Brazilian national anthem and receive their medals.

Yet these champions are not in one of Rio’s stadiums. They are residents of a poverty-stricken suburb where one man is trying to bring the Olympic dreamcloser.

Jarbas Meneghini, 47, once dreamed of becoming a professional footballer. That didn’t work out and he became a mechanic, but his devotion to sport didn’t fade.

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Meneghini has turned his house in Campo Grande, a huge working class neighbourhood west of Rio de Janeiro, into a shrine to the World Cup and the Olympic Games.

The Olympic and national flags flutter in the wind outside. The Olympic rings sit in his garage. In a window sits a cluster of trophies.

Every Sunday for the past month, Meneghini has brought his fantasy world to children who get no chance to share in the actual Olympic extravaganza.

They come to run on Meneghini’s athletic track, which goes around his patio. They play table tennis out on the pavement. They run along the street parading Olympic torches that Meneghini himself makes out of plastic.

Kids from the favelas have little chance of attending the real Olympic Games being hosted in their city, but Meneghini’s programme gives them a taste of what sportsmanship is all about.
Photos: AFP

Life-long learning

The programme is set to continue throughout the Olympics and Paralympics. Meneghini hopes the benefits will last much longer.

“Sport has rules, and this helps the kids. There are rules in professional life. There’s an hour to arrive, an hour to leave – and sport teaches you that,” the impromptu teacher said.

As soon as he knew that his home city would host South America’s first Olympics, Meneghini made a torch replica. The children wanted more. By the time the Games started, he was as ready as the real thing. There’s even a podium made out of old vegetable crates where children get medals and wear wreaths at a carefully orchestrated ceremony.

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A question of priorities

For many of the children who have never even set foot on Rio’s famous Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, going to the real Games is not a viable dream.

Parts of Rio have been transformed by Olympic projects like a tramway and a new metro line. But the poor neighbourhoods, or favelas – home to almost a third of the population – look untouched by all the billions of dollars spent.

With Brazil suffering its worst recession for almost a century, many ask why the money spent on the Olympics couldn’t have been spent instead on health services or education to narrow that gap.

“I have done the whole thing almost all by myself, but with pleasure,” Meneghini said.

“My mother helped me sew the national flags and my wife and daughter helped too. There is no government help for the poor in ... districts like Campo Grande.

“The government concentrated only on the sporting centres ... and forgot the poor. It’s really sad. All that remains is the people’s own strength and passionate people like me who can educate kids through sport,” he said.

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
Now that’s sportsmanship


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