MEDELLIN, Colombia -- High atop the Santo Domingo barrio in this city's First District sit, incongruously, three black slate cubes. This is the $4 million Spanish Library, opened in March 2007. The library features books, computers, community meeting rooms, art exhibits and, intriguingly, what's called a ludoteca, run by a public agency called INDER, staffed by a specially trained worker in a green-and-gold uniform. Always -- green-and-gold. That's the marker that it is official. That's the signal that it is safe.
A ludoteca is a mommy-and-me hang-out spot for moms and kids ages 1 to 5. There are balls and mats things to roll on and play with, an immersion in sports from the get-go. "This program is really great," says Ana Maria Acevedo, 32, who was there one day recently with her 23-month-old, Roxana Echavarria. "We feel we are working together."
Around Medellín, there are now dozens upon dozens of ludotecas. "Through sports," says a senior city spokeswoman, Paula Bustamante Jaramillo, "you remove them from conflict. You give them room. You give them tools. Violence is about easy money. If you change the context from the beginning, if you make it a family context from the beginning, then the whole context is different. It is so beautiful. And it is so simple."
Twenty years ago, Medellín was known as the most dangerous city in the world.
Now it is, truly, a city transformed.
Now it is bidding for the 2018 Youth Olympic Games, against Buenos Aires and Glasgow, Scotland. The International Olympic Committee will select the winner July 4 at an all-members assembly in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Medellín's candidacy poses a fascinating test for the IOC.
At issue, bluntly, are 20-year-old stereotypes of Medellín and, for that matter, all of Colombia -- cocaine, coffee, corruption -- amid the axiom that politics, especially sports politics, can sometimes be as much about perception as reality.
Reality check: the drug lord Pablo Escobar has been dead since December, 1993.
That is a generation. That is long enough to grow up in in Medellín and to get so good at bike-racing that you can go to the London Games and win a gold medal.
"I travel all over the world to participate in sport competition and I am always asked the question about safety in Colombia," said 21-year-old Mariana Pajón, the 2012 women's BMX London champion. "And I am constantly having to tell people, including my fellow athletes, that Medellín is not what people think it is."
The Youth Games is the pet project of the current IOC president, Jacques Rogge. It came to life midway through his term, in 2007, and was envisioned to be set in a city and country that was never going to be able to stage the full Olympic Games.
Thus, for instance, the inaugural edition of the Summer Youth Games went to Singapore in 2010. To win those Games, Singapore beat Moscow. Russia of course put on the 1980 Summer Games and will stage the 2014 Winter Games -- not to mention a raft of other events in the coming years, including the 2018 soccer World Cup and the 2015 swimming world championships.
To keep the project afloat, however, the second edition of the Summer YOG is due to go to Nanjing, China, in 2014 -- just six years after the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. The budget is believed to have soared to more than $300 million.
Within influential Olympic circles, there are concerns that already YOG has overgrown its original mandate.
Assessing the three 2018 YOG candidates:
In 1997, Buenos Aires bid for the 2004 Summer Games, eliminated in the first round, losing a run-off vote with Cape Town, South Africa. Buenos Aires also will play host to the IOC session this September at which the IOC will both elect Rogge's successor and select the site of the 2020 Summer Games.
Glasgow is not only bidding for 2018, it already has been picked to stage the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Moreover, Scotland is of course part of the United Kingdom, which obviously just last summer put on the Summer Games. The Glasgow bid file explicitly "seeks to build on the London 2012 Olympic Games and use the momentum to ensure a powerful and impactful YOG six years later."
That leaves -- per the original terms of what YOG is supposed to be all about, a city and country otherwise not in the running for the Summer Games -- Medellín.
If that weren't enough by itself, there's more -- much more -- to recommend Medellín.
In its evaluation commission report issued earlier this month, Medellín was said to present "minimal risk to the IOC."
In part, that's because of the experience the city gained from putting on the South American Games in 2010. The evaluation report praised the "compact concept and use of existing venues" and the depth of "good experience in hosting international and multi-sport events."
It's also because, practically speaking, all the venues are ready to go -- 20 of 24. Because most everything got built, and only three years ago, for the South American Games, the only permanent venue yet to be built would be a new BMX range. Three others would be temporary -- triathlon, sailing and road cycling. The Medellín 2018 operating budget: an estimated $170.5 million.
For good measure, in 2011 the IOC recognized Medellín with its "Sport and Environment Award" for its work at the 2010 South American Games, citing a variety of initiatives.
Others have also taken note of what is going on in Medellín.
In January, the New York Times devoted its "36 Hours" travel feature to Medellín. It cited, among other things, El Poblado, "a villagey part of town that is thick with bars and excellent restaurants."
In March, Medellín won the worldwide "Innovative City of the Year" competition, beating out New York and Tel Aviv, chosen in part for its modern transit system, environmental policies and network of museums, schools, libraries and cultural centers. The contest is sponsored by the non-profit Urban Land Institute in association with the banking concern Citi and the marketing services department of the Wall Street Journal.
Why else did Medellín win? Because, in part, the city averaged 10 percent growth for each of the 10 years between 2002 and 2011, an investment consultant telling the Financial Times earlier this year those are "Asian Tiger" numbers.
Medellín's metro system, incidentally, has its own unique way. Bogota, the Colombian capital, does not have a metro; Medellín does, repelte with cable cars to get to the city's high points. Thus it's a point of enormous civic pride. Stations and cars are spotless. There's no eating or drinking; no graffiti, either. It's all part of what around town is called "metro culture," and to underscore the point there's even a library at the Acevedo station.
This is all part of the transformation. Several years after Escobar died, a new mayor took over, Sergio Fajardo, now the regional governor. A mathematician turned politician, he promoted a wide-ranging agenda that linked education, culture, sports and community development with infrastructure and notable architecture such as the Spanish Library.
The facility that used to be a women's jail near the San Javier metro station? That's now a library, too.
In the Fourth District, near what used to be an enormous garbage dump known colloquially as "Fidel Castro," the architecturally notable Cultural Development Center of Moravia opened in 2008. A few months ago, a kindergarten opened across the way.
"If you build a beautiful library in a poor neighborhood, it gives people a sense of importance; it raises their dignity and gives them access to goods such as education," Fajardo, seen as a presidential contender by 2018, told the Financial Times earlier this month.
"It also brings visitors from other parts of the city -- something that encourages social integration."
The current mayor, Aníbal Gaviria, said in a statement, "Medellín stands today as an example for many cities around the world, because despite having lived through difficult times 20 years ago, we have undergone a true metamorphosis.
"We are now a city filled with life, thanks to the innovative approach taken at every step, both in social programs and urban development."
In April, the magazine U.S. News published a lengthy column entitled "Why Medellín, Columbia is a great retirement spot," citing the "calming and peaceful" red brick buildings and "swatches" of flowers, "friendly, helpful and hospitable" people, always-temperate climate and -- not to be forgotten -- the El Tesoro shopping mall, "as impressive … as you'll find anywhere in the world."
Colombia played host to the 2011 FIFA under-20 World Cup; Medellín staged some matches. Last month, FIFA, obviously satisfied, awarded Colombia the 2016 futsal World Cup.
Also last month, the international sportswriters association, AIPS, held a regional "Sports Games" in Medellín; 164 journalists from South, Central and North America were on hand, and on May 21 a seminar brought together journalists and Olympic champions Jefferson Perez of Ecuador and Alberto Juantorena of Cuba.
Next year, the United Nations World Urban Forum will be staged in Medellín. Since its first meeting in Nairobi in 2002, the Forum has grown in size and scope as it has hopscotched around the world: Barcelona in 2004, Vancouver in 2006, Nanjing in 2008, Rio de Janeiro in 2010, Naples in 2012.
Some 4,500 people will be in Medellín for the UN event in 2014.
"This," said Juan Pablo Ortega, the chief executive officer of the Ruta N technology initiative in central Medellín and a Fulbright scholar at MIT in 2007-08, "is candidly part of the strategic view -- to be a city of big events."
No one, by the way, is pretending there isn't still crime in Medellín. In 1991, Medellín recorded 6,349 homicides. That number has since dropped by 80 percent.
In its evaluation, the IOC said, "In Medellín, crime is still a problem," then said in the very next sentence the city had made "admirable progress" to "significantly improve the standards of safety in the city." It also said the president of the country "guaranteed" that "all necessary measures would be taken to ensure the security and peaceful celebration of the YOG."
"Foreign investors are keen to do business with Colombia," the president, Juan Manuel Santos, said in a statement. "Over 640 foreign companies have come to Colombia since I took office," in August, 2010, "and they are now more concerned about legal insecurity than physical insecurity. Security is now a non-issue."
When it comes to crime -- there's crime in Buenos Aires and Glasgow. There's for sure crime in Rio and the Summer Games are going there in 2016.
Bottom line: would the UN be coming to Medellín if it weren't convinced the city wasn't just transforming but, indeed, transformed?
Want more evidence of how Medellín has been transformed?
Here's one point to consider:
If Medellín wins for 2018, the opening ceremony will be staged at the same 44,500-seat stadium where the bid committee now has its headquarters -- which, incidentally, is across the street from the aquatics complex with 10 pools. Across a cozy plaza -- where butterflies flutter and parrots, including brilliant macaws, chatter up on the trees -- are the environmental award-winning volleyball, basketball, gymnastics and combat sports buildings. Though they have lights, those halls were built to take advantage of natural lighting and, because the climate is so mild, don't need air-conditioning.
Last November, Madonna -- the Material Girl herself -- played that stadium. Not just one show. Two. Back-to-back.
Here's point two:
Steps away from where the "Fidel Castro" dump used to be sits a soccer field. In his time, Pablo Escobar put up towers and lights so that the people could play ball at night.
Now, that field has new lights and, moreover, new turf. It is run by INDER. The field is busy morning, noon and night.
"For us, the page is turned," the Colombian IOC member and the country's sports minister, Andrés Botero Phillipsbourne, said.
Added the 2018 bid chief executive, Juan Camilo Quintero, "The transformation in our city is huge. We have passed from the dark to the light through the last 20 years," adding a moment later, "The legacy is through sport, education and culture. That is the perfect fit for our city. This is the reason the Youth Olympic Games were created. This is the DNA of that."