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In Good Conscience

Carioca's stirring gold medal was the true Silva lining for Brazil

Actions speak louder than words. You might know everything or nothing about sports, but if you have Brazilian, Fijian, Kosovar or Vietnamese blood, nothing might explain or replace that feeling of ownership or exceptional pride this week that wasn't there before.

What makes these nations proud? Gold medals.

It is the antithesis of the Olympic ethos, of Baron Pierre de Coubertin's premise that it is not the winning but the taking part that counts.

Perhaps the world has grown more dependent on gold than is healthy for us. We cannot all be Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps, who appear to be freaks of nature, built and wired differently to the rest of us.

Yet Rafaela Silva, Majlinda Kelmendi, Hoang Xuan Vinh and the Fiji rugby sevens boys demonstrate that there are medals for dedication and the aptitude to find what they can do well, and persevere at it until the prize at the top of the tree is theirs.

Silva (Brazil) and Kelmendi (Kosovo) are female judo champions, in different weight classes.

Hoang is a hotshot Vietnamese army colonel who won gold in one pistol event and silver in another.

Rafaela Silva was born, and raised, in the City of God. Now 24, and already committed to defending her Olympic title four years hence, she is more relevant as a symbol of these Games than the romantic image of the Girl from Ipanema.

And the Fijians? Their size, their speed, their beautifully open way of running with a rugby ball has long been a religion on the island of less than a million people.

The way that the Olympics have grown and diversified makes the dream more accessible than ever.

But to me, the most beautiful sight of the Games thus far was of Rafaela Silva crying tears of emotional joy atop the podium on Monday.

These are Brazil's Games, the first Olympics in South America, ever.

They came burdened with doubt about the country's national debt, and about the cariocas' (the people of Rio de Janeiro) ability to organise and safeguard such a monumental event for 10,500 athletes in 28 sports.

So far, so good. As with the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, which followed a devastating earthquake there nine months before the event, the spirit of the people, the joy from putting on the show, gets to the competitors.

Rafaela gets to me because of where she's from, how she has made herself a great champion, and just what it will mean in terms of lifting up the lives of, literally, millions.

She is a child of the favelas, the shanty towns dotted around Rio de Janeiro where destitution and the fear of being caught up in the crossfire between drug gangs and cops has been documented in such globally acclaimed movies as Cidade de Deus - City of God.

It is one of Rio's godforsaken shanties.

Directed by Fernando Meirelles, who also helped to create the opening ceremony for the Olympics, the film's most memorable line was: "If you run, the beast catches you; if you stay, the beast eats you."

Rafaela Silva was born, and raised, in the City of God.

Now 24, and already committed to defending her Olympic title four years hence, she is more relevant as a symbol of these Games than the romantic image of the Girl from Ipanema, an altogether sweeter image of surf, sand and sunshine on the well-to-do south coast city.

Geraldo Bernardes, Silva's coach, said this week his first impression of her was of her need to channel her aggression.

"Judo," he said, "requires from the athlete a lot of sacrifice, but in a poor community they are used to sacrifice. They see a lot of violence, they may not have food."

The Silva sisters (her elder sibling Raquel is also a judoka) had no money for the bus ride to the Instituto Reacao for judo. They walked the journey.

After the London Olympics, where Silva was disqualified for an illegal kick, she almost quit.

She was abused online. "The place for a monkey is in a cage," someone wrote. "You are not an Olympian. You are an embarrassment to your family."

To a young, black woman the insults were worse than her disqualification. "The place for you is as a monkey in a cage," Silva repeated to the media after receiving her medal this week: "But my place is in sports, in judo."

It takes a lot to make grown men cry, but I felt tears well up.

"I can serve as an example for the children of the community," Rafaela continued. "Just being black means that people look at you in a different way. You walk down the street and people hold on to their bags.

"Today shows the value that a child from a favela can have. I remembered the sensation I had after London and I wanted to have a different feeling. Judo has its favourites, but the one that wins on the mat is the one who wants it most, and in my house no one wants it more than me."

Brazil's medal, its only gold as I write this, could not be more apt.

Many years ago (39 to be exact), I visited another Rio favela. It was not as hostile as the City of God depicted in the movie.

I chose the favela Mangueira because of its proximity to the famous Maracana stadium. It had joy and hopelessness on the streets. A woman, shrouded in black from head to toe, sat on a kerbstone and stared obliviously ahead, saying nothing, seeing nothing.

She never stirred as kids of every race played barefoot, kicking around a small apple instead of a ball they did not possess. Their improvised skills mastered that apple and captivated me.

An elevated motorway above Mangueira stretched all the way up the mountain known as Dedo De Deus - Finger of God. On top of it in Teresopolis, the playing gods of Brazil's national teams trained, and still do.

For decades, I watched and I waited, hoping that one of the boys from Mangueira might rise to the top of that mountain. None ever did, as far as I'm aware.

But Silva has proved that it can happen.

Sport, sacrifice, and dreams.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 13, 2016, with the headline 'Carioca's stirring gold medal was the true Silva lining for Brazil'. Print Edition | Subscribe