From the favela to the top of the podium, Rafaela Silva earned Brazil’s first gold medal of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
And to celebrate, the 24-year-old judo champion shed tears as she jumped into the exuberant crowd with a Brazilian flag wrapped around her shoulders.
“I hope my medal now will open the door for Brazil to win many more medals,” Silva said.
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-kilogram division of the Japanese martial art on Monday as the crowd chanted “Rafa” and waved the green and yellow Brazilian flags.
In the final, Silva beat Sumiya Dorjsuren of Mongolia after two days of disappointment on the mat for Brazil.
But the victory 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 telling her “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 medalist Flavio Canto, was in top form for much of the day. Her first match lasted only 46 seconds.
On Monday, Silva was given a hero’s welcome as she rode a fire truck into Rio’s Cidade de Deus “City of God” neighborhood, the violent, poverty stricken slum where she grew up. Young and old, residents came out in droves to celebrate Silva’s inspirational Olympic victory.
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