From slum child to olympic champion

Brazilian judoka Silva says she now wants to inspire other kids from the City of God

Rafaela Silva, born and bred in Rio, weeping tears of joy as she celebrates her gold medal marking her rags-to-riches rise from favela to Olympic judo gold medallist.
Rafaela Silva, born and bred in Rio, weeping tears of joy as she celebrates her gold medal marking her rags-to-riches rise from favela to Olympic judo gold medallist. PHOTO: REUTERS

RIO DE JANEIRO • Brazilians celebrated in the stands after Rafaela Silva won gold in women's judo on Monday, claiming the first Olympic gold medal for the host country and capping a journey to the podium that began in one of the city's most notorious slums.

She raised her arms in triumph as she overcame top seed Sumiya Dorjsuren of Mongolia, following a pulsating semi-final victory that went into extra time against 2012 silver medallist Corina Caprioriu of Romania.

Gold for Silva marks a fairy-tale ascent to the Olympic podium from a childhood in Rio's Cidade de Deus favela, made famous in the film City Of God.

Following early years of trouble that saw her getting into fights in the neighbourhood, Silva found structure to her life through judo and went on to attend the Instituto Reacao, founded by 2004 Olympics bronze medallist Flavio Canto.

"The fans have always encouraged me, especially the kids from my own community in the City of God," she told reporters following her victory.

"If I can set an example for the kids in the City of God, if they can believe in their dreams and find their dreams through sport, then do it. I hope to be an example for them and I think I can be."

Silva's medal, in the 57kg weight class, was also Brazil's first in judo at Rio after strong contenders from the hosts' team were eliminated in the first two days of action.

Brazil is placing high hopes on its judo team to boost its medal haul in Rio after it took home four in the sport at the 2012 London Games.

"Of course we would have liked to have won more medals but out there on the mat, everybody who goes out there is a worthy contestant and we hope that my medal will be adored and open the way for Brazil to win more medals," Silva said.

At the winners' ceremony, she earned a huge roar of approval as she held up her medal for the crowd before bursting into tears as the Brazilian national anthem played.

"It's amazing. We're a country that's had some problems. So it makes us so happy to see our flag up high," said Gustavo Lima, a 42-year-old IT worker.

Japan's Kaori Matsumoto, world champion and London gold medallist, was stunned in the semi-finals by Dorjsuren and went on to settle for bronze.

Silva added that winning gold in Rio had shoved the taunts of racist detractors back down their throats.

Four years ago, she was the victim of sickening racist abuse on social media after she was disqualified from the London Games for a borderline illegal leg-grab.

"People taunted me, they said I was a monkey and my place was in a cage. But I proved my place is in sport and in judo," said Silva.

Her emotions were understandable after almost quitting the sport at just 20 years of age following her London disappointment.

"After my defeat in London, I thought about quitting judo and started doing work with my psychologist," revealed the new champion.

"She did not let me leave judo. My coach encouraged me every day.

"In 2014 and 2015, I didn't have good results. I was semi-discredited, people said I was an unknown quantity.

"But I came back, I trained to the maximum and the results came."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 10, 2016, with the headline From slum child to olympic champion. Subscribe