Rafaela Silva: how this tough girl from a Rio favela became an Olympic gold medallist

Rafaela Silva: how this tough girl from a Rio favela became an Olympic gold medallist

She won Brazil’s first gold medal in the 2016 Olympics, but it wasn’t just a personal triumph, it was a win for the entire nation

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Brazil's Rafaela Silva is feeling patriotic with green and yellow elastics in her braces. Photo: AP

Moments after winning Brazil’s first gold medal of the Olympics, Rafaela Silva broke down, wiping away her tears with a bandaged hand, and told her celebrating nation that if it wasn’t for judo, “I could still be playing in City of God”.

Eight kilometres away, in the “City of God” neighbourhood, a 44-year-old doorman named Claudio “Piri” Roberto joined a crowd watching the ceremony on a small television on the pavement. A national hero was a rare thing in the slum, made famous by a 2002 hit movie that depicted its drug traffickers, poverty and gun violence.

This favela of concrete homes and corrugated roofs, with a rubbish-filled canal running through the middle and gang graffiti tagging its walls, hasn’t shed its reputation. But with the 24-year-old judo master’s win, Roberto said: “You forget about your own suffering a little bit.”


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“For this community, her victory means everything,” said Tony Barros, a photographer and community organiser in City of God. “What other legacy will we get from the Olympics?”

Olympic organisers may boast of Rio’s white-sand beaches and majestic peaks, but the Games have also put a spotlight on the city’s favelas. The opening ceremony depicted these poor neighbourhoods, so visible in their tight clusters on Rio’s steep hillsides, as being filled with music and dance, the home of samba and baile funk. But with news about stray bullets and armed robberies has also highlighted the everyday dangers of these ramshackle neighbourhoods.

When Silva’s smiling face appeared on the front pages of newspapers last week, the rubber bands of her braces in the green and yellow of the Brazilian flag, the country erupted in national pride. Brazilians were seeing a face from a segment of society often ignored or mistreated.

Almost one-quarter of Rio’s inhabitants live in favelas, whose residents tend to be poor and black. After Brazil was awarded the Games in 2009, city officials promised projects that would provide a better life for residents of favelas as part of the legacy of the Olympics.

Silva's father, Luiz Carlos, 53, cries while speaking in front of the house where his daughter was born.
Photo: Reuters

Some would stretch well beyond the Games. A programme called Morar Carioca was to bring running water, a sewage system, paved streets and public lighting to all favelas by 2020. But by mid-2014, that programme died, journalist Juliana Barbassa writes in her recent book Dancing With the Devil in the City of God. Meanwhile, some favela residents lost their neighbourhoods as construction transformed parts of the city for the Games. An estimated 60,000 people were displaced to build

the stadiums and infrastructure projects for the Olympics.

The City of God got its start through a government scheme. In the 1960s and ’70s, authorities built public housing estates along Rio’s suburbs, moving residents from precarious wooden shanties located near wealthier, beachfront neighbourhoods into sturdier concrete homes outside of town. Many saw it as an effort to move poor people out of sight.

Silva’s father, Luiz Carlos, arrived at City of God with his family in 1966, when he was three years old, after his parents’ home collapsed in another sprawling favela, Rocinha. The neighbourhood lacked many basic services.


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“We used to run out of light all the time when I was a kid, run out of water. I had to go far away to buy cooking gas and carry it back,” he said. Silva worked all sorts of jobs: in a pharmacy, at a Mr Pizza restaurant, in a Honda office. He and his wife, Zenilda Silva, put their two daughters, Rafaela and Raquel, into sports classes at a young age to keep them out of trouble.

“We saw bandits fleeing from the police and raiding our house. We couldn’t even play in the street like other children could,” said Rafaela.

As a child, she lived in a three-storey yellow concrete house on Jesse Street. She was tough and rambunctious: she chose judo at the local community centre over dance classes. After she learned a few moves, angry parents called her home.

“The mothers were complaining because she was beating up their boys and they didn’t like it,” her father said.

Some of Rafaela’s friends got pregnant at a young age, she said, and others got involved with the drug gangs. When she started training, her talent was undeniable. She moved to a judo school opened by a former Olympic medallist and blossomed into a junior champion. Her family moved out of the favela just before the film City of God came out.


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In 2009, City of God was the second favela to benefit from a state programme to provide rough neighbourhoods with “Police Pacification Units”, which were intended to protect residents and disrupt the drug trade.

The units adopted tough tactics, including shutting down parties and temporarily banning motorcycle-taxis, since they were suspected of moving drugs. Some police officers also alienated residents by demanding bribes and racing their armoured vehicles through the narrow streets.

The programme was ultimately credited with bringing periods of calm. But as Brazil has slumped into economic crisis in the past two years, the violence in City of God has flared again.

“If you’re here at around 7pm or 8pm at night, you will hear the gunshots,” said Patrick Leao, 25, a barber whose shop is down the block from the Silva family home.

After Silva won her gold medal, her relatives gathered outside the family home sharing photos and old newspaper clippings.


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“Thank God her father invested in her,” Christiane Silva, her aunt, said.

Rafaela considered quitting judo after losing at the 2012 Olympics in London. She was disqualified for using a move that had once been common but had recently been banned. The heartbreak was made worse by racist abuse online. One said that “a monkey’s place is in a cage, not in the Olympics”.

The hatred devastated her. She stopped practising. Her relatives and psychologists, even Brazilian football star Neymar, all encouraged her to go back to the sport.

After a few months off, she resumed her path to the Olympics.

“She showed everyone she is a proud human being,” said her aunt Christiane.

“We’re really happy for her; we’re happy for the City of God.”

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
From a Rio slum to Olympic gold medallist

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