Formerly homeless boy who lit Olympic cauldron now has 'beautiful life'
Spot where torch displayed site of massacre of homeless youth just like him
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."
"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.
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."
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
"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.
"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.