Judoka Rafaela Silva: A Hometown Hero Emerges from the City of God

Rio Olympics Judo Women
Brazil’s Rafaela Silva celebrates after winning the gold medal of the women’s 57-kg judo competition at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Monday, Aug. 8, 2016. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
Policeman and firemen in Rio de Janeiro, who were so incensed they were not getting paid, decided to greet visitors landing at the airport with a sign – “Welcome to Hell – Police and firefighters don’t get paid, whoever comes to Rio de Janeiro will be safe.”

Despite the budget troubles, officials arranged to ensure a security force of 85,000, of which 23,000 are actually soldiers.

And yet, the anecdotes of crime are painfully ironic.

  • Sailing gold medalist, Fernando Echavarri and Liesl Tesch, an Austrailian paralympic sailor, were both mugged at gunpoint.
  • The minister of education of Portugal was robbed on his way back to his hotel while strolling near the rowing venue.
  • A New Zealand sports official was nearly shot by a stray bullet as he was standing in the equestrian media area.
  • The Olympics own security chief was attacked by four men with knives. The security chief, fortunately, had security, who had a gun, and was able to shoot one and chase the others away.

And while crime in Rio has gotten heightened attention due to the Olympics, Carioca have lived in an environment of insecurity and unease their entire lives, particularly those who live in the slums known as favela.

One person who has emerged from the drug and crime-infested favela called Cidade de Deus, made famous in the film, City of God, has put a dent in the perception that all is doom and gloom in the deeper recesses of the mega-city Rio de Janeiro.

On Monday, August 8, Rafaela Silva won gold in the women’s 57kg judo finals. Defeating Mongolia’s Dorjsurenglin Sumiya convincingly, Silva emerged as Brazil’s newest hero.

Silva grew up only 10 kilometers away from the artificially up-scale Olympic center, in the City of God favela, where as a dark-skinned woman, she faced racial abuse, got expelled from school, and grew up poor and hungry.

Rafael Silva

In an attempt to help Silva avoid bullies and drug gangs, while steering her down a better path, she was enrolled in free judo classes. For whatever reason, judo was the way out of the favela.

At the 2012 London Games, Silva was expected to do well, but was disqualified for an illegal move during a preliminary match, and never made it to the medal round. That made it easy for the racists to flame her with insults, calling her a monkey who needed to be in a cage.

Silva’s achievement is more than just an athletic achievement – she had to overcome far more than the average Olympian. As Juliana Barbassa, author of “Dancing with the Devil in the City of God” told the BBC, “It’s a situation of literal marginalization- they were pushed to the margins. To get out if it as Silva has done is really challenging. She literally had to fight her way out of the environment.”

When Silva won the gold medal, her reaction was complex: of joy, of vindication, of shame.

The monkey that they said had to be locked up in a cage in London is today an Olympic champion at home. Today, I’m not an embarrassment for my family.

She is not an embarrassment. She is a hero to all Brazilians, a hero to the downtrodden and the hard working. A hero from the City of God.