When Layana de Souza first discovered sport, she immediately fell in love with football. Unfortunately, she wasn’t allowed to play as at the time football was not seen as an appropriate activity for young girls in her environment. Now, the IOC Young Leader wants to help the next generation of young female athletes flourish in whatever sport they choose through her Changing the Score project.

Growing up in Rocinha – Rio de Janeiro’s largest favelas – Layana de Souza threw herself into every sport possible from the moment she could walk. Whether that was gymnastics, swimming, basketball or her first love football, she wanted to do it all. But her passion for playing football soon faced resistance from those around her, who claimed that the sport “was not for girls.” As a result, she was pushed away from the game, with her mother encouraging her to choose any sport other than football.

“The first sport that I was actually truly passionate about was football, but I wasn’t able to pursue that because, according to my mum, there was no visibility or future for women in the sport,” explains De Souza. “Now, it makes me very happy to turn on the TV and watch a women’s football match. I know things are changing. We are progressing slowly, but we are progressing and that makes me happy to be able to see that.”

Making the best of it

Having been forced out of football due to her gender, De Souza started focusing more and more on her other sports until she eventually decided to choose one: basketball. She first started playing at the age of 12 and quickly developed her skills to such a point that she was offered a scholarship to play college basketball in the USA. As such, she became not only the first person in her family to graduate from college, but also the first to attend college at all. The benefits De Souza enjoyed from her time studying in the US were manifold.

“I learned how to take care of my mind and body as an athlete by playing sports,” she says. “Thanks to my basketball scholarship, I had the opportunity to live abroad, to meet many different people from different backgrounds. I made friends for life. It also taught me the values of discipline and teamwork that can transfer to many other areas in life and so I was prepared for life outside of basketball too. It was very special to me.”

Following her time at university, she was offered the chance of a lifetime to work not only at the Olympic Games, but at those hosted in her own country. Rio 2016 stands out as a milestone for De Souza, who worked for the Organising Committee as a Sports Information Coordinator for basketball, helping to ensure that the athletes were properly looked after by arranging everything from transport to meals for them.

“I was able to work at one of the biggest sporting events on the planet in my own sport and it took place in my hometown,” she recalls. “I felt like I was in a playground but with lots of responsibilities! I had amazing players all around me, but I had lots to do to make sure they were looked after. It was a real turning point in my career and also a wake-up call, in a sense. After the Games, I decided to pursue my master’s degree at Georgetown and to focus my research on the legacy Paris 2024 could have in contributing to alleviate the refugee crisis in France. I was trying to link the Olympic experience I had in my home country and turn that into something positive.”

These experiences proved crucial to De Souza, not only in terms of personal development and helping her to progress through university, but also in connecting her with the Olympic Movement. Having experienced basketball in its many different forms throughout her life, being at an Olympic Games she was exposed to the positive changes the Games can make in wider society.

“Rio 2016 was sort of the starting point of me being able to dive deeper into the magic of the Olympic Movement – what it really means – and I just fell in love,” she explains. “To learn what the Olympic Games represent, putting sport at the service of human development, promoting a peaceful society, ethical principles and social responsibility – that’s what led to my IOC Young Leaders project.”

Full circle

Diving deeper and deeper into Olympism and the Olympic values, De Souza was inspired to do something to help those most in need but found it difficult to make a start without a large following or the financial backing that would make it possible. She also found the sheer scale of the issues facing her community and the wider city of Rio de Janeiro daunting. As she began brainstorming, she felt lost and struggled to understand what she wanted to fix and who she wanted to help. Then she was offered the opportunity to join the IOC Young Leaders programme.

“When I was approached to join the IOC Young Leaders programme, I realised very quickly that it was exactly what I needed to make my dream come true,” recalls De Souza. “It has provided me with guidance, financial resources and the opportunity to network with people inside and outside the programme to make sure that I’m on the right track. I want to use my sport as a tool for social development, human development and to be able to give back to the kids here in Rocinha by offering them the same opportunity that I had. If I’m able to do that, I feel like I will have accomplished what I wanted to do.”

With the support of the IOC Young Leaders programme, De Souza founded Changing the Score (Mudando o Placar). She decided to focus her project on improving the quality of life of those in her community by offering free basketball lessons to children between the ages of 6 and 14, along with educational activities, psychological and sporting support, and cultural activities, including an upcoming trip to the Olympic Park in Rio de Janeiro to watch a basketball game. The project focuses on three of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, namely good health and well-being quality education and gender equality. With regard to the latter, De Souza had to ask herself an important question when planning how Changing the Score would educate young boys about gender equality while ensuring that the girls involved would still feel like they were in a comfortable environment to play basketball.

“I talked to a few people, including an Olympian who started her own programme in Uganda, who told me that her project also focuses on gender equality and offers lessons to both boys and girls,” explains De Souza. “She said they want to empower the girls, but also to educate the boys. We need to have the boys by our side as well, to advocate for girls. If we just exclude them, where are they going to get that information from? We need to help them understand that this is their issue as well. Their mums, sisters or daughters are going to face the same thing. That’s why I decided to open up for boys and girls.”

Her project has started on the right track as Changing the Score kicked off its classes one day before International Women’s Day, with nine girls enrolled in the programme already.

By empowering the girls and educating the boys in attendance, De Souza hopes to foster more understanding about gender norms and stereotypes in her community, and to stop people discouraging young girls from playing sports like they had for her.

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