2016 | The Year Of the Under Dog Story No. 9

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2016 | The Year Of the Under Dog Story No. 9

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SportsCafe Desk

01/01/2017

Rafaela Silva gave Brazil their first Gold medal of the Rio Olympics by winning the 57-kilogram division of Judo, and it is a medal which many felt that the nation did not deserve, least the society which gave very little to her and almost took everything away.

"If you run, the beast catches; if you stay, the beast eats" was the tagline of the movie City of God. This story is about the one who did manage to run, escape, and then return with an Olympic gold medal around her neck. A medal which many felt that Brazil did not deserve, least the society which gave very little to her and almost took everything away. All Rafaela Silva had was the beast named Cidade de Deus – perhaps the most notorious favela, made famous by Paulo Lins’ pen, and later by Fernando Meirelles’ lens (If you have not watched the movie yet, please do so!)

She is black, female, poor, homosexual - perhaps every possible undesirable quality a person could have in Brazil. She belonged to the most marginalized group in the Brazilian population. The City of God is a picture in contrast to the glitz and glamour of Rio de Janeiro. The extreme poverty and nefariousness of the favela sit right at the heart of the otherwise bustling and modernized city. The view of the striking Guanabara Bay and the granite mountains shooting out of it is almost devalued by the slum stacked up on the hillside.

Few leave this place, and even fewer come back to tell the story.

It might look grim from the outside, but it is grimmer on the inside. Inside the belly of the beast lies a community which is not run by the government, but by the infamous Red Command gang. One needs to demonstrate allegiance to these drug dealers in order to enter the favela. A walk through the streets, mostly occupied by small vendors, kids playing football, and gun-wielding men, almost takes one to a completely different nation, one living beyond time and rules of the society surrounding it. One which also has a separate currency – fear.

Growing up on these streets, Rafaela and her sister Raquel led a life which provided very few glimpses of any opportunity to escape this place. Few leave this place, and even fewer come back to tell the story. As a kid, Rafaela was starting to adopt the qualities required to survive in such a favela. Having faced countless obstacles, injustices, and oppression in her young life, she was learning to return in kind. She used to return from school with a bloody nose and torn shirts. She was born with an urge to fight, which had led to a lot of expulsions from various schools over the years, and it became very difficult for her parents to rescue her from the grip of violence, that is a part of daily life for the residents on those hills. Rafaela was even earmarked as a prime candidate for ‘grooming’ by the Red Command gang, who enroll urchins like her.

In a desperate need for change, her parents turned towards a sport which runs on discipline, and a man who was trying his best to bring about a change in that section of the society with judo. Rafaela’s first love was football but she had to stop practicing it because there were no soccer classes for girls in her community. However, her natural talent and aggression meant she did not take much time to adapt to judoka at Instituto Reação — a project created in the City of God by former judo athlete Flávio Canto to give underprivileged children classes in judo to take them off the streets.

Instituto Reação cofounder Geraldo Bernardes, a renowned coach in Brazil, was her first sensei, and he saw her talent immediately, albeit one which needed to be polished and disciplined.

Judo has rules. The street doesn’t.

Raquel Silva

“Judo has rules. The street doesn’t,” Rafaela’s sister said in an interview with the New York Times. Raquel too was enrolled in the institution, and according to Bernardes, she was probably more talented than Rafaela to start with. However, she had to stop after she became pregnant at the age 15 – an issue for which Bernardes has lost a lot of her promising students in the past. By the time, Raquel returned, Rafaela had surpassed her. Eventually, her sister failed to make it to the national team and gave up on the sport. But, she remains Rafaela’s biggest motivator, trainer, and friend.

Rafaela’s street-fighting spirit combined with Bernardes’ training made her a name to reckon with in the junior circuit. Initially, her ambitions were limited to cleaner clothes, better living, and may be a car, but eventually, she set her eyes on the biggest prize of all – an Olympic medal.

At 16, she won the Junior World Championships, and by the time the London Olympics arrived, Rafaela was one of the favorites for a place on the podium.

Since it was introduced by the Japanese immigrants to Brazil in the 1930s, and since its admission to the Olympic programme in 1964, Judo has provided more medals to Brazil than any other sport. Only football carries a greater weight of expectation at these Games. All those expectations were shifted on Rafaela’s shoulder at London, but she failed in the second round.

In the middle of her fight against Hungarian Hedvig Karakas, Rafaela performed an illegal move and was immediately disqualified by the officials. Years of struggle and fight, all of a sudden meant nothing at all. As distraught as she was after that game, she was broken down by her fellow countrymen on social media.

She faced tremendous backlash on Twitter and Facebook, where she was racially abused. A Brazilian Twitter handle, part of a sizeable network of cyber-bullies who co-ordinate attacks against prominent black women, said, “the place of a monkey is in a cage.”. Rafaela, of course, responded in kind. She wrote, “Go f--- yourself ... earn a spot in the Olympics and then we’ll talk.”, and it started a war on social media. Eventually, the 24-year-old was reprimanded by the sport’s governing body, and Rafaela had to apologise.

That incident left her shattered. She abandoned training altogether, hardly left her bed, and spent most of her time in front of the TV in her small drawing room, often crying profusely. She had given up on the sport, and her nation.

After months of struggle, her family and coach were eventually able to get her back in the gym. Attending a session from a sports psychologist helped as well. Slowly, she found her motivation, and decided that she won’t rest till she has an Olympic medal – the colour did not matter, any medal would do. Incidentally, she did not have to travel far to get that, as the Olympics came to her doorstep in Rio.

Four years ago, her parents could not afford the flight fare to travel to London to watch their daughter participate in the sport. This time they could.

The ticket prices at the Games meant a certain section of the society could not afford it. The people at the favela were largely indifferent to the extravaganza which was taking place in their neighborhood. It was only the fireworks in the sky which grabbed their attention. However, as Rafaela made her way through the rounds and came within touching distance of winning a medal, dingy taprooms and dorms began to screen her matches. She was one of their own – the Olympics, finally, had something which appealed to them.

 © Getty Images

In the quarterfinals, Rafaela came up against Karakas – the Hungarian who knocked her out in London, without really doing much about it. She was the favorite to beat her four years back, and she lived up to that billing in front of the home fans, who booed Karakas whenever she went to ground. Rafaela made quick work of her, before beating Corina Caprioriu of Romania in a tight semi-final. In the final, she faced the World No1 from Mongolia - Sumiya Dorjsuren.

If Rafaela was feeling the pressure, she was good at hiding it. She took on the best and beat her before the roof was lifted by the home fans who kept on chanting her name. Rafaela took her time to bow to her opponent before bursting into tears and sprinting to her family in the stands. As she hugged them, the crowd – mostly made up of people who belonged to the upper echelons of the society, and those who usually look down on people her from the favelas – cheered her on.

The inside of Rafaela Silva’s right biceps, hidden under her judoka dress, is tattooed with the Olympic rings and a note, in Portuguese: “God knows how much I’ve suffered and what I’ve done to get here.”

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