Dave Zirin: Olympic joy in the face of erasure

August 21, 2016

Rafaela Silva.

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% of the Olympic decorations were delivered; and maybe there are more soldiers 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 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. 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.

But the reality is different. Silva and her family are proud of their roots, and their community holds her close to their heart.

Silva made it this far because of a Rio community-based NGO called Instituto Reacao, founded by Brazilian judoka 2004 bronze-medalist Flavio Canto. Silva's sister Raquel, also a graduate of the institute, said: “Before I or my sister got into judo, we were pretty rebellious … sport radically changed our lives. It was transformational, like water to wine.”

In other words, the lesson for favela activists and residents has been that if you invest in impoverished youth, greatness will bloom. Silva 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, Rio On Watch journalist Meg Healy says, “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. Silva's very existence is a rebuke to these priorities.

There is joy in Rio of a different kind as well. There is joy in people who are taking advantage of the international spotlight to strike out against the invisibility imposed upon them by their own government. There are the campaigners against interim president Michel Temer — who achieved power through a judicial coup against elected President Dilma Rousseff — holding up “Fora Temer” (“Temer out”) signs during Olympic events.

During the games, activists were being arrested and detained for raising their voices. After several of these protests went viral, a judge issued an injunction on August 9 against any more removals, saying that protest during Olympic events was a constitutional right. This also stands as a stunning rebuke of the International Olympic Committee's efforts to make sure that the only political messages displayed were their own.

Ironically, the reason for the initial round of ejections was a law signed by Dilma in May, just before she was impeached, to prohibit racist or discriminatory chants at Olympic venues. Unless you believe illegitimate coup-presidents are victims of discrimination, the court ruling was something to celebrate.

Then there is Vila Autodromo. This is a once-vibrant community mere yards from the main Olympic Park that has been winnowed from 650 families to 24. Olympic displacement turned the unique community into ruins.

When I visited Vila Autodromo in May, 24 homes remained amidst the rubble. In an effort to remove Vila as an “issue” before the Olympics, the city built 24 new homes on the same land: all near-identical white box-like structures that look like they were taken out of a box marked IKEA.

But the 24 remaining families have not ended their struggle. Anti-Olympic messages are written across the walls. The families have set up their own Museum of the Removed, which documents their long struggle with the city.

It contains vivid photographs of police violence, artistic testimonials to their Herculean efforts to not be brushed aside like refuse tossed into the canal that surrounds their homes. Media members leaving the brand new Courtyard Marriott who take a left toward Vila Autodromo instead of a right to the Olympic Park can, in five minutes, learn the history of an Olympic struggle against all odds.

The struggle is to be visible in a country — and world — that sees them as expendable. Resistance is its own narcotic, even more potent than the Olympics itself.

[Abridged from Edge of Sports.]

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