CBC IN RIO

Formerly homeless boy who lit Olympic cauldron now has 'beautiful life'

The young man who lit the cauldron in downtown Rio was abandoned, lived in a homeless shelter, and was rejected three times by adoptive parents, before finally finding a home. Now he feels he exemplifies the Brazilian dream.

Spot where torch displayed site of massacre of homeless youth just like him

Jorge Gomes receives the torch and kisses it (Olympic Broadcasting Services)

In the west region of Rio, in the rough part of a neighbourhood called Padre Miguel, is a small sporting complex. There are two little soccer pitches, a basketball court, a pool, and a rough track.

While groups of six teens take turns sprinting down one side of the track, on the other side 14-year-old Jorge Gomes is jogging, taking things a little slower — as though he's savouring every second of what he calls "his beautiful life."

Gomes was abandoned at birth, spent much of his early life in a homeless shelter in a favela called Mangueira. He doesn't remember much, aside from the hunger.
Jorge Gomes, who lit the Olympic cauldron, was abandoned at birth, then adopted and rejected three times. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"We went hungry," he says. "We would only eat breakfast, that's it, and we had to sleep on the floor."

Gomes was adopted three times. And each time‚ he was given back to the shelter.

"I felt rejected," he says.

Until Ana Lourenco and her husband adopted him six years ago.

Lourenco is sitting under a tree at a blue-and-white table near the track, waiting patiently for Gomes to finish his run. When he's done, he changes into a blue Chelsea football shirt and sits across from her. She reaches over and caresses his arm. Since she adopted him she's had to do a lot of reaching out, especially in the early days when he used to fight with her other kids and then run away.  

Lourenco knew Gomes liked running. And he was fast. So she took him to train at a sports centre called Vila Olimpica.
The Vila Olimpica sports centre in Padre Miguel, built to help underprivileged athletes, is where current Brazilian track Olympian Rosangela Santos and Paralympian Felipe Gomes trained. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

It's a government-run program to give promising athletes from disadvantaged backgrounds a chance to get some elite track training and to escape the streets. The Vila Olimpica in Padre Miguel was the first one built, and has nurtured talents like current Olympian Rosangela Santos and Paralympian Felipe Gomes.

"By putting centres like this in needy areas, then you can keep kids away from the drug trade," says Gomes's track coach Edileuza Medeiros.

Then in August, two days before the Olympics, Medeiros called Lourenco to ask her if her son Jorge would be interested in lighting an Olympic cauldron in downtown Rio. Medieros said the organizers were looking for a runner ... a young black teen who had come from poverty. A success story.

"Someone who has a beautiful life," Gomes says. "Someone who represents Brazil."

And so‚ last week, that's what he did. He represented a side of Brazil that the Olympic glow tends to overshadow.
The moment Jorge Gomes was waiting for: lighting the torch in front of the iconic Candelaria church in the Old Port. (Olympic Broadcasting Services)

A girl scout held up a lantern containing the Olympic flame, a man lit a match from that flame, then lit a torch. The torch carried by Jorge Gomes.

"Before I got the torch I was already nervous and my leg wouldn't stop trembling," Gomes says. "But when I lit the Olympic flame, it was a very proud moment for me and for Rio de Janeiro." 

And of course, for mom. 

"It was so beautiful," Lourenco says. "And seeing his joy, his happiness, it's priceless."

Flame's location brings up painful memories

But before he lit the torch, his parents had told him why the flame was to be displayed where it was, in front of a beautiful church with a dark history.
Mauricio Santoro, a political science prof at Rio de Janeiro State University, says what shocked Brazilians about the killings near Candelaria church so much was the age of the victims. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"In 1993, there was a group of street kids who used to sleep here, and they were murdered by police officers and civilians in the payment of local businessmen," says Maurício Santoro, a political science professor at Rio State University. "It was a brutal mass-killing even for the brutal standards of Rio at that time when the city was much more violent than it is today. 

Santoro walks across the street from the church and points at the tiled sidewalk. On it is painted a row of eight small figures that look like children fallen to the ground.
On the sidewalk across from the church are painted eight red figures to mark the spots where many of the children were killed. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"Many of them were killed on this sidewalk here," Santoro says. "So you have the paintings here in red to remember. It's a kind of memorial to what happened in that terrible night."

When Gomes' parents told him about the Candelaria massacre‚ he says‚ it hit home. Most of the victims were his age.

"It could have been me," he says, "and that's why I lit the flame there, to change the story."

Gomes says he hopes to return to the Olympics one day as an athlete.

As for the children who he grew up with at the homeless shelter, he says, he still wonders what happened to them.

About the Author

Kim Brunhuber

Los Angeles correspondent

Kim Brunhuber is a CBC News Senior Reporter based in Los Angeles. He has travelled the world from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan as a videojournalist, shooting and editing pieces for TV, radio and online. Originally from Montreal, he speaks French and Spanish, and is also a published novelist.