From the favela to the top of the podium, Rafaela Silva earned Brazil’s first gold medal of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics on Monday.
“I hope my medal now will open the door for Brazil to win many more medals,” said the 24-year-old.
Silva, who grew up in the country’s largest slum and became the country’s first female world champion in judo in 2013, won the 57-kg division of the Japanese martial art on Monday.
In the final, Silva beat Sumiya Dorjsuren of Mongolia.
But the victory also provided some vindication for the racial abuse Silva, who is black, endured from Brazilians after missing out on a medal at the 2012 London Games. Four years ago, she received text messages saying, “the place for a monkey is in a cage.”
“The monkey that they said had to be locked up in a cage in London is today an Olympic champion at home,” Silva said. “Today, I’m not an embarrassment for my family.”
At the last Olympics, Silva was disqualified for an illegal leg grab during a fight against Hedvig Karakas of Hungary. This time, Silva beat Karakas in the quarterfinals.
Silva, who trained at a judo dojo founded by former Olympic bronze medallist Flavio Canto, was in top form for much of the day. Her first match lasted only 46 seconds.
With its strong martial arts culture, Brazil had been expected to do well early on in the judo competition. But defending Olympic champion Sarah Menezes narrowly lost out on a bronze on Saturday in the 48kg category, and so did Erika Miranda at 52kg on Sunday.
The women’s bronze medals went to Kaori Matsumoto of Japan — the London Games champion — and Telma Monteiro of Portugal.
In the men’s 73-kilogram division, Shohei Ono of Japan beat Rustam Orujov of Azerbaijan for gold.
Ono is a two-time world champion and threw Orujov twice during the final, including a match-ending ippon with more than one minute left on the clock.
It is Japan’s first judo gold of the Rio Olympics after taking four bronze medals in the first two days of the competition. The Japanese men’s team was shut out of gold medals at the London Games, the first time they had failed to win any events in the sport.
“Japanese judo has a mission to win gold,” Ono said. “I certainly feel pressure, but it just drives me to perform.”
The men’s bronze medals were won by Dirk Van Tichelt of Belgium and Lasha Shavdatuashvili of Georgia, who was the Olympic champion in the 66-kg category before moving up a weight division.