RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil, Aug 10 – In Rio’s violent, poverty stricken City of God slum, family and friends of Brazilian judo hero Rafaela Silva say her gold medal is a win for them all.
A small crowd of people gathered in the doorway of her simple house, which has an unpainted concrete facade on the ground floor. Whether taking turns to read Tuesday’s newspapers or just chat, there was only one subject.
“She won this medal for us. She has always won her battles and she really deserved this win,” said neighbor Marco Vinicius, 23.
Silva, 24, is a stunning success story for the huge favela that leapt from anonymity to worldwide notoriety with the hit 2002 film “City of God.”
She grew up learning to survive life in the crossfire between heavily armed gangsters and Rio’s notoriously brutal police.
– Armed men –
Then when her career threatened to go off the rails in the wake of a shock disqualification at the London 2012 Games, she overcame depression and virulent racial abuse from fellow Brazilians.
Now she is the world’s best female under-57kg judoka with her win Monday. She is the City of God’s champion.
Vinicius said she’d put her haters in their place.
“This medal was a double honor,” he said. “Today the so-called ‘shame of the family’ has shown that she is a person who can show the example and make us all proud and want to follow her lead.”
Silva’s father, Luiz Carlos do Rosario Silva, stood in the street, trying to take it all in.
“It’s quite something, isn’t it? In 2012 they were abusing her as a ‘monkey.’ Then in 2013 she became the first ever Brazilian world champion. Four years later she has the Olympic medal, the champion’s medal,” said Silva, 53, who wore a Brazil team shirt and a baseball cap inscribed with his daughter’s name.
– Armed men –
Silva’s gold and the wave of positive attention from the Brazilian media and public do nothing to alleviate the toughness of life in the City of God favela.
A short way from where her family greeted well-wishers an armed drug trafficker was visible. Also near was one of the sewage-filled rivers that criss-cross Rio, where millions of people have access to only primitive sewerage systems.
Late Tuesday a bus carrying journalists who are covering the Olympic Games passed near City of God and was hit by either bullets or stones, according to passengers. Police are investigating.
Escaping that reality was one achievement for Rafaela Silva. Defeating her personal demons after the London loss was an even greater one.
Morale became so low that she “went three months without judo,” her father said. “She stayed at home, always lying down.”
“It wasn’t the loss that affected her — it was the racism. It was the racist comments that people posted which hurt her,” he said. “She was afraid to look at her computer in case she’d see even worse things written about her.”
Another resident of City of God, Atiliane Caetano Vicente, 32, said Rafaela Silva’s success would leave profound changes.
“It has already changed things, especially for children. They can be inspired by Rafaela’s victory,” she said. “It’s wonderful what she did, the example she gave with her story.”