How a favela kid became Brazil's top badminton player

Ygor Coelho de Oliveira, whose father started a badminton program to help kids in a rough neighborhood, is Brazil's first male Olympic badminton player – and an ambassador for the power of hope and hard work.

Courtesy of Miratus
Ygor Coelho de Oliveira, Brazil's first Olympic competitor in men's badminton, stands inside the Miratus badminton school in Chacrinha, a favela on the western outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. His father started the program in 1998, and Mr. Coelho began playing at the age of 3.

Samba dancing may not be the traditional way to train for badminton. But then again, most everything about Brazilian Ygor Coelho de Oliveira’s Olympic story is unconventional.

Like many Olympic athletes, he started young – at the age of three. There, the similarities end.

A kid from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro – slums better known for drug trafficking and poverty than Athenian models of athleticism – Mr. Coelho grew up in a badminton program created by his father.

As Coelho developed his own athletic prowess, even using the quick, rhythmic samba to speed up his footwork, he also mentored younger players to focus on sport and school rather than getting involved in criminal activity.

Now, as Brazil’s first-ever men’s Olympic badminton player, he hopes his message will resonate far beyond his own community.

“It doesn’t matter what is your social class, or where you are from, you can achieve greatness,” says the lanky, 19-year-old.

Badminton is such an obscure sport in soccer-crazed Brazil that many kids in the program joke that they have to use cellphone videos to explain it – the rackets, the birdies, the moves – to friends.

In 1998, when the Olympian’s dad, Sebastião de Oliveira, started his badminton program, Miratus, it was little more than a dirt court in his backyard. Since then, the elder Oliveira has made badminton a central part of Chacrinha, a community of sweeping, informally-built redbrick and corrugated metal structures on the western edge of Rio.

Courtesy of Miratus
Ygor Coelho de Oliveira plays badminton on the dusty foundation of the Miratus school in 2006. A decade later, the building – and players like Mr. Coelho – have risen to new heights.

Today, students gather on bright orange badminton courts in their yellow-and-green jerseys and swing their rackets while zipping their feet to a samba beat. They learn through a training program created by Oliveira that incorporates five levels of samba, as opposed to the more traditional jumping rope. And students compete all over Brazil – and the world. There are roughly 200 kids who show up to play on a daily basis.

Coelho’s hard work and drive are what qualified him as Brazil’s No. 1 player in 2015. But his journey to this Olympic moment is deeply intertwined with his father’s story.

The elder Oliveira grew up in a poor children’s home while his mother served as a live-in maid for a wealthy member of Brazil’s military government. Later, he would spend his holidays helping her as a trash collector in a local junkyard. But he was determined from a young age to make something of himself – and give back. When he was 16, a “very special” professor told him, “you spend all of your time planning and you forget to learn. I want to find you a course of study,” Oliveira recalls.

That attention motivated him to study physical education, and to realize the importance of a caring adult role model in the lives of at-risk youth.

“With my limited resources I wanted to [help] people so they could have the type of success, the type of security that I had,” Oliveira says. The badminton school, which he constructed by hand with the help of family and friends, “was made with love,” he says.

“You go into the favelas and it’s chaos,” says Kirk Bowman, a political scientist at Georgia Tech and co-founder of Rise Up & Care, an American NGO that gives funding to established projects like Miratus in poor communities around the world. “But you walk into [Miratus] and it is order and purpose and happ[iness]. It’s a totally different world, and it’s no wonder that these kids, their grades improve, relationships in the family improve. They have role models and are achieving goals at a really young age.”

Coelho has lived it. Growing up, he watched peers not just fall in with the “wrong” crowd, but die because they felt their only options were drugs or crime.

“In our community there are two paths, that of drugs and then the positive path. That can be the path of sports, work, or school,” he says. “I’m an example of someone … who works to stay on the positive path. That can change a life.”

He’s become a role model within the community, showing just how far a kid from the favelas can go. And now he, along with female badminton teammate Lohaynny Vicente, is making history for Brazil at the Olympics.

Kids here “look at my son and they see he is a champion. They find hope in these examples.” says Oliveira. “If they don’t [identify with someone like Ygor] they identify with traffickers.”

The past year has been a whirlwind of travel and qualifiers for Coelho. He is ranked 64th  in the world – a significant improvement over his 77th -place ranking this time last year, though still nowhere close to medal contention. But he’s his father’s son, and he’s motivated more by setting a positive example than bringing home hardware.

“I think it’s important [to give back to the community],” he says. “[Miratus] doesn’t just form champions in sports, but also in life.”

In recent years, Miratus has incorporated programs that reach beyond badminton, giving classes on topics including computers, accounting, English, and theater. They hope to introduce even more.

“If you work a lot, a lot, a lot,” Coelho says. “You can reach your dreams.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to How a favela kid became Brazil's top badminton player
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today