When the French director Marcel Camus took the classic Greek tale of Orpheus and Eurydice to a Brazilian favela in the late 1950s, he created a film that would not only beguile Barack Obama and his mother, but would make a little bit of Olympic history.
After all, how many Olympic athletics gold medallists have had a major role in a movie that won the Palm d’Or at Cannes, an Oscar and a Golden Globe?
The answer is one: the multi-talented triple jumper Adhemar Ferreira da Silva, who was cast as Death in Camus’s Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus). It won the Cannes prize in 1959, and the other awards in 1960, the year of the Rome Olympics.
That was when da Silva, Brazil’s foremost Olympian, South America’s greatest athlete, and one of the most popular and charismatic figures in his nation’s sporting history, said farewell to the Olympic Games with his fourth and final appearance.
Da Silva, who was carried on a six-mile funeral procession preceded by athletes in their running gear when he died in 2001, left quite a legacy. He is still the only South American to have won two Olympic athletics gold medals. He invented the victory lap for Olympic champions. He set up programmes for deprived children in his belief that, “sport, especially among the poor, is the only and best way for social advancement, and for escaping violence and drugs.”
His name lives on in annual awards, in a Brazil-Australia exchange programme for young athletes, and at the ‘Jump for Life’ institute in São Paulo that carries his name.
None of this was enough, though, to impress the organisers of the 2016 Olympic Games in his home country. Da Silva features for a few seconds in a short promotional film broadcast at every venue, but nobody from his family was invited to the opening ceremony for the Games, nor have they been asked to attend a single session of athletics or any other sport. A presence for the da Silva family at the triple jump final would surely have gone down well with the crowd.
“It’s so sad. It’s as if they’d never heard of him,” said Rosemary Mula, who watched da Silva win his second gold medal in Melbourne in 1956 and later became a close friend.
Da Silva’s daughter, Adyel, said: “It is distressing. Did he not do enough for a venue to be named after him, or even for his family to be invited to the Games in his own country? Sometimes I think they want to erase my father’s name from our history.”
Adyel, president of Jump for Life, was angry that Pele had been asked to light the Olympic flame at the opening ceremony. Although illness kept Pele away, Adyel said: “I have nothing against Pele - he and my father knew and respected each other. But he is not an Olympian, he has no connection with the Olympic Games. It’s always football, football, football in Brazil.”
Obama’s anthropologist mother, Ann Dunham, said Orfeu Negro was her favourite film. This led the US President, who felt the black characters were depicted as “childlike”, to question his and her differing perceptions about race, as he revealed in his 1995 memoirs Dreams From My Father.
Da Silva was studying for a physical education degree while he had his stint as an actor. “He was chosen because of his athletic body,” said Adyel. “Being an actor wasn’t his dream, and he didn’t do any more movies after that.” He did, though, maintain his impressive physique throughout his life.
Instead of acting, da Silva worked in the 1950s as a civil servant for the São Paulo State Government, and kept studying and training. “I would work in the morning and afternoon, train at lunchtime, or at the end of the working day, and study at night,” he said in a 1993 interview.
Besides physical education, he had degrees in law, the arts and, having gone back to studying at the age of 60, public relations. He learned English, Finnish, French, Italian, Spanish, German and Japanese. He played guitar and sang. He was a newspaper columnist, a television commentator on athletics, and he worked for the diplomatic service as Brazil’s cultural attaché in Nigeria from 1964 to 1967.
“He was a always a very curious man, always wanting to learn,” said Adyel. “He was always positive, and the only time I saw him really brought low was when my brother [Adhemar Junior] died in a motorbike accident. He was 32.”
Da Silva, the only son of a railway worker and a cook, had originally wanted to be a footballer but he switched to triple jump after trying it for the first time at the late age of 19, encouraged by the man who would become his lifelong coach, Dietrich Gerner. The German lived in Brazil and da Silva called him “my German dad”. Within three months of taking up the sport da Silva was breaking records, and within a year he was making his first appearance at the Olympics in London in 1948.
Later in life da Silva became a “guru” for Brazilian sports administrators. “The first thing I did when I was appointed was call Adhemar and Pele for a talk,” said Carlos Melles after he was made Brazil’s Sports Minister in 2000. “Adhemar was my number one helper.”
Da Silva created the “victory lap” after winning his first gold medal in Helsinki in 1952, where he became extraordinarily popular. He was on the front page of newspapers not just because he won but because, when he was asked questions in English, he answered in Finnish. He even sang songs in Finnish. He had learned the language from a Finnish family living in his home city of São Paulo so he could better enjoy the Olympic experience, and to win the support of locals.
“Most Finnish people had never seen a black man and here he was talking to them in Finnish, singing in Finnish,” said Adyel. “They couldn’t believe it. They loved him.”
A crowd of 70,000 chanted da Silva’s name during the contest, in which he broke the world record four times in six jumps. He was given a standing ovation at the medal presentation and a judge handed him a Brazil flag and told him: “The public wants you to take a walk.” He set off on the first victory lap in Olympic history.
In a 1991 interview da Silva recalled: “I did it with pleasure, because I wanted to thank those who had helped me to win the gold. And that was about it, from then on it began to be known as the victory lap. I still find it difficult to explain the emotion I felt that day.”
In 1993 da Silva was given another huge ovation in Helsinki when he was invited to an athletics meeting. “It was like I had never left,” he said. “Every Finn that I've ever met remembers me as the Hero of Helsinki.”
In Melbourne four years later da Silva trailed Vilhjalmur Einarsson, an unheralded Icelander who broke the Olympic record. But he won easily enough in the end and Einarsson, who was second, went down in Icelandic sporting history as his nation’s first Olympic medallist.
Rosemary Mula was a 15-year-old spectator at the time. There were no Australians in the final so the girls decided to cheer for da Silva, the elegant, cheerful champion.
“Adhemar liked us, he could hear us cheering him, and he would come over and talk to us during the competition,” says Mula. “Later, after he had won, he said he had to go back and thank the kids who had been supporting him. His gold medal was in a box and he let me hold it. It was a magical moment.”
Later in life, when Mula became a dedicated Olympic volunteer, she met da Silva again. He became a close friend of Mula and her husband, Wilf, and stayed at their apartment during the Sydney 2000 Games. Wilf Mula owns several racehorses and he once named one of them after da Silva.
Da Silva’s final Olympic appearance was in Rome, where he was Brazil’s flagbearer at the opening ceremony. The crowd shouted “Orfeu!” at him because of his role in the film, which was popular in Italy. At the age of 33 da Silva finished a disappointing 11th, unaware at the time that he was ill. He was given a standing ovation by the crowd when he departed, a fitting farewell to his athletics career.
After his death the Mulas set up a scholarship that pays for an exchange between Australian and Brazilian schools. He also gives his name to an annual award in Brazilian sport.
Da Silva’s exploits are forever marked by the presence of two gold stars on the badge of the São Paulo football club, the third most popular in Brazil, of which he was a member. They signify his world records in 1952 and 1955, when he won the second of his three Pan American titles.
The triple jump became known as “the Brazilian discipline” because of his exploits, and two more Brazilians, Nelson Prudencio and Joao Carlos de Oliveira, won silver or bronze medals at four successive Games between 1968 and 1980.
His home city is the base for the Jump for Life Institute set up by his family to provide opportunities in sport to disadvantaged children.
The aim of Jump for Life is to introduce young people from deprived areas to athletics. The Institute, sponsored by a bank, reached out to one school when it started three years ago and now has a presence in 17 schools. “The next project is to teach PE teachers how to coach the kids,” said Adyel.
She and her fellow workers at the Institute are doing exactly what da Silva tried to do for much of his life - taking athletics to children to give them a sporting chance.
Their current focus is on a region of high deprivation, Vale do Ribeira. “You can find great athletes there, but they know nothing about track and field,” said Adyel.
Adyel’s son Diego married Rosemar Coelho Neto Menasse, who is an inspiration to the children they work with. She is from Vale do Ribeira and became an Olympic sprinter who stands to win a medal. She was in the Brazil team that finished fourth in the 2008 final and the winners, Russia, may be disqualified for retrospective doping positives.
“It’s beautiful to see the small children listening to her, enraptured,” said Adyel. “She is quite a celebrity to them because she is one of them. People in Brazil don’t realise how important sport is as a social tool. My father was always aware of that.
“We want to hire coaches to coach the teachers so they can bring those children through in track and field. Our Institute is not big, nor is our budget. We are not setting out to search for Olympic gold medallists, we’re looking for children who, through athletics, can make a jump in their own life, to find something they want to do and do their best.”
Champions are there to be found, though, said Adyel. “It’s a shame, because in a country the size of Brazil we could have the best athletes. In Brazil, football is sport, and sport is football.
“Last week Rosemar brought one of the children from Vale do Ribeira for trials and all the coaches wanted to train her. There is so much athletic talent here in Brazil. Let’s find the best, let’s want the best.”
At the Rio Games, no Brazilian has qualified for the triple jump and the final at the Maracanã is given a lowly billing, scheduled at 9.50am on Tuesday. The da Silva family will have to watch it on television.
“I can’t understand it,” said Adyel. “The Olympic Games now are all about business, so different from the Games my father went to. They don’t have any respect for memory, which is the opposite of what we do at the Institute.
“Some histories must be told. My father had a beautiful story, the only Brazilian in the twentieth century to win two gold medals, an inspiration to ordinary people. They had a chance to name something in his honour when Brazil hosted the Pan American Games in 2007 but they did nothing. I thought okay, they are waiting for the Olympic Games this year. But no. Nothing.”