There is joy in Olympic Rio, make no mistake about it. Maybe it takes two hours to travel 25 miles across the city; and maybe only 15 percent of the Olympic decorations were delivered; and maybe there are more troops on the ground, per capita, than the United States had in Iraq at the height of Bush’s war; but there is joy.
This joy is an undeniable narcotic. It is a potent blend of often-ignored sports and undeniably compelling human-interest stories and, maddening as they are, the Olympics are the syringe.
I have witnessed this joy firsthand in the rapturous response to Rio’s own Rafaela Silva, Brazil’s first gold-medalist in these games, who won gold in the judo competition. Silva hails from the internationally infamous City of God favela. While news reports have invariably referred to the judoka great as coming from a “notorious” and “crime-ridden slum”—as if she rose from the ranks of a community determined to drag her down—the reality is different. Rafaela Silva and her family are proud of their roots, and their community holds her close to their heart.
Rafaela made it this far because of a Rio community-based NGO called Instituto Reação, founded by Brazilian judoka 2004 bronze-medalist Flávio Canto. Her sister Raquel, also a graduate of the institute, said, “Before I or my sister got into judo, we were pretty rebellious. We weren’t interested in going to school, and sport radically changed our lives. It was transformational, like water to wine.”
In other words, the operating lesson for favela activists and residents in City of God has been that if you invest in the impoverished youth of Rio, greatness will bloom all around. She did not rise in spite of City of God, but was forged by these surroundings into the person her mother now calls “a warrior of gold.” When the gold was placed around Silva’s neck, the thousands of people, as described to me by Rio On Watch journalist Meg Healy, “were just cheering and crying side by side.”
Unfortunately, residents in Rio’s favelas have been displaced, and City of God has been plagued by police repression and violence in the lead-up to these Olympics. Rafaela Silva’s very existence is a rebuke to these priorities.
This Olympic drug was something I also imbibed heartily, live, as Brazil’s ragtag Olympic basketball team beat powerful and heavily favored Spain by one point, 66-65, on a basket with less than five seconds to go. Hoops is certainly not one of the marginalized sports that only sees light at the Olympics, but in Brazil, where soccer, volleyball, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu reign supreme, it’s not exactly a national pastime. But going against a Spanish team packed with NBA players and led by future Hall of Famer Pau Gasol, the Brazilian team was egged on by an overwhelmingly Brazilian crowd that treated every possession like a World Cup counterattack.