Michael Phelps became the most decorated medalist in Olympic history, as he added five gold and a silver, to bring his lifetime total to 28 medals.
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – Soccer star Neymar’s gold-medal goal Saturday night may be the Olympic moment Brazilians craved for more than a century, but these games were defined by another local medalist.
Just four days after an Opening Ceremonies production that Brazilians loved so much, some of them still weep about it a week later, 24-year-old Rafaela Silva won gold in judo.
Judo is not a very popular sport in this futbol-crazed country. And, many of them will admit, they’re not very supportive of women’s sports.
But the two-time Olympian’s struggle, heartbreak, resilience and victory encapsulates her country’s equally frustrating fight for legitimacy and respect among the world’s most powerful countries.
Silva rose from one of Rio’s most famous favelas, or slums, to become one of its finest athletes. She endured poverty, dealt with racism and then, in these Brazilian Olympics, she silenced all of her critics with the kind of work ethic and passion that is a hallmark of Brazilians.
Her story is their story. And just as they haven’t always fully embraced her, they often struggle against their own insecurities.
If these games have given them anything, it’s pride. Because, well, there isn’t much else for them to have in the wake of economic and political chaos and public health issues that threatened their ability to even keep their commitment to host the first Olympic Games in South America.
To be clear, they had mixed feelings about hosting. Some thought it would be the perfect opportunity to show the best of Brazil. Others worried that chronic corruption in the government would make it impossible for them to find approval from countries like America.
There were protest, mishaps and plenty of criticism.
Was it a good thing for Brazil to host the Olympics? “No, I don’t thinks so,” said Guilherme Giovannoni, a member of Brazil’s basketball team. “Unfortunately not. We hoped, like a few years ago, that it could happen. But I don’t see that happening now.” Maria Carolina Segantin, 36, lived in Park City from 2003-2007. She was born in a small town west of San Paulo, where she now resides.
“It was bad,” she said, as she sat in a park in Copacabana, where she’d come to attend an Olympic beach volleyball match. “As was the World Cup. I think we have priorities here, and I don’t think the money should be invested in (the Olympics). However, once it’s here, that’s not our job to complain about it. We have to show, first, to the athletes because they don’t deserve our disrespect. We have to show respect for the athletes.” The games are here, she said, so show the world the best of Brazil. This country, she believes, could be a world power if it can clean up its government corruption.
“Complaining about it is not going to get a result,” she said. “So let’s receive (the world). Let’s show them what potential we have.”
She acknowledges all the bad, rattles it off without excuses.
“We have our really bad things, but we have our positives,” she said. “And the U.S. and France and Europe, you have positive points and you have negative points.”
What makes her happiest is when tourists see the beauty she sees in this diverse, unique landscape and culture.
“Our music is great, our food is great, our people are great,” she said. “We have this feeling that we are too inferior, and we are not. We have so many things to show the world.”
One of this country’s most famous and popular dishes is feijoada. It’s one of the few dishes you can find everywhere, and it’s a mix of beans, spices and pork. Every day, the news was a sort of feijoada.
The pinnacle of this mix came on Sunday, Aug. 14. In the morning, U.S. swimmer Ryan Lochte and three others reported being robbed at gunpoint by men posing as police officers. It turned out to be a lie, with the swimmers instead getting into an incident at a gas station with armed guards, who demanded they pay cash for damage done to the building.
Rio 2016 officials apologized, and criticism rained down as every fear of lawlessness was confirmed. Meanwhile, the organizers scrambled to figure out why two of the pools had green water.
That morning, golf made its return to the games after a 112-year absence. That afternoon, gymnast Simone Biles won her third gold medal of these games — on vault. That night, Usain Bolt won his third consecutive 100-meter gold.
A day later, a camera fell in Olympic Park, injuring several people, and gymnast Laurie Hernandez made her presence known by winning a silver on beam.
On Tuesday, Lochte’s story was coming unraveled, while Simone Biles secured her place as one of this Summer Games' greatest athletes with a fourth gold in floor. In the women’s 5,000-meter race, New Zealand’s Nikki Hamblin and USA's Abbey D’Agostino collided and then helped each other finish, leading to one of the most beloved moments of sportsmanship from the games.
There were problems certainly. But every day, in spite of the troubles, there were triumphs.
Legends were made.
Michael Phelps became the most decorated medalist in Olympic history, as he added five gold and a silver, to bring his lifetime total to 28 medals. Katie Ledecky, 19, won four gold and a silver as she set a world record and an Olympic record. Usain Bolt added three gold medals to his lifetime total of nine Olympic golds. Alison Felix became the most decorated American runner with two golds and a silver added to her lifetime total of nine Olympic medals.
Hearts were broken.
The U.S. women's soccer team didn't even make it to the medal round, losing to Sweden. Serena and Venus lost their first Olympic match in four appearances in the games in the first round of competition. Kerri Walsh Jennings lost for the first time in an Olympics, but rallied for bronze with partner April Walsh. American cyclist Mara Abbott was overtaken in the last 100 meters to finish fourth after leading the race for 89 minutes.
Fiji and Singapore claimed their first Olympic gold medals ever — Fiji in rugby, Singapore in swimming.
And issues large and small dogged the organizers, even as the people embraced the experience.
“I think we did a great job,” said Jazz point guard Raul Neto. “I think they did everything well. I was really, really proud. I didn’t expect it was going to be that way.” He said that he believes those who watched or attended the Olympics will have a better understanding of Brazilian culture from the games. It’s not perfect, but it is beautiful.
“You can tell from the Olympics, well of course there are still problems with politics,” he said. “But you can tell we are enjoying this party, forgetting about everything, just for a little while.”
Flavia Six, 21, Brasilia, said she’s learned a lot about her country by attending some of the events at the Olympics.
Some Brazilians, especially those who don’t live in Rio, said they worry about what will happen to the city after the visitors are gone. Others believe their generous spirit has made the games a success and people have fallen in love with Brazilian culture — its passion, its beauty, its unpredictable nature.
Hugo Reis said the Olympics have exposed Brazilians to other sports and other cultures.
“We should know there are more games than soccer,” he said. “We should spend our money to support these athletes.”
Seantin agrees, “I think swimming and volleyball have showed us Brazilians that there are other sports we should follow, not just soccer.”
Segantin said that when Silva won her gold medal, it was something spectacular in which all Brazilians could revel.
“It’s beautiful,” she said. “It gives her pride. It gives us pride.”
And for once, that pride doesn't come with any conditions or apologies.