After Rafaela Silva was disqualified from the 2012 Olympics for using an illegal leg grab, many Brazilians sent her vile, racist messages via social media.
But on Monday, in Rio de Janeiro, they chanted her name.
The 24-year-old had just won Brazil’s first gold medal of the 2016 Olympics.
Silva grew up in Rio’s infamous City of God favela, improbably rising from poverty-stricken anonymity to prominence as a judo star. Now, four years after the gaffe that got her disqualified in London, she’s won gold in her hometown before the eyes of the world.
Silva needed just 47 seconds to beat Dorjsrengiin Sumiya of Mongolia in the 57-kilogram division. Her victory earned adulation from fans who see it as more than just a sporting victory.
“This is more than just a medal, it’s a victory for poor people. It’s hope for all of them.”
“Everybody here knows Rafaela’s history,” Eduardo Colli, a Brazilian fan watching Silva’s final, told the Associated Press. “This is more than just a medal, it’s a victory for poor people. It’s hope for all of them.”
After Silva was disqualified in London, some Brazilians bombarded her with racism on social media. Silva initially quarreled back, often using equally vulgar language. The incident was seen by many as illuminating racial tensions in Brazil, which imported 4.9 million slaves from Africa over a four-century period ending in the late 1800s.
Silva learned her martial art in a judo school located in a slum after years of less formal scraps in some of Rio’s toughest neighborhoods.
Judo requires from the athlete a lot of sacrifice, Geraldo Bernardes, her longtime coach, told The New York Times in January. But in a poor community, they are used to sacrifice. They see a lot of violence; they may not have food. I could see when she was very young that she was aggressive. And because of where she is from, she wanted something better.
On Silva’s right arm is a tattoo. It features the Olympic rings. The tattoo reads, in Portuguese: God knows how much Ive suffered and what Ive done to get here.
Now she has a gold medal to show for all that suffering. And now fellow Brazilians even those who sent Silva racial abuse four years ago can only thank her.
Additional reporting by The Associated Press.