Rowdy Rio crowds are upsetting both athletes and fans. But it's a passion born from soccer stadiums, and is what a South American Olympics should look (and sound) like.
RIO DE JANEIRO — It was best to see how the first week went down, before falling into ethnic and geographic stereotypes. But the impression of the first days remains: Brazilian fans are particularly jingoistic. Besides being colorful, vocal and passionate, they demonstrate a level of support for their own country's athletes that has rarely been reached in the history of the Olympics.
Surviving videos show that crowds in Berlin cheered American sprinter Jesse Owens after he defeated German athlete Luz Long in 1936.
Such a scene has little chance to happen in Rio.
Brazilian fans not only cheer for home-grown athletes, they jeer their opponents. The latest target of the Cariocas is French pole-vaulter Renaud Lavillenie — facing eventually winner, Thiago Braz da Silva of Brazil — booed by a hostile Rio crowd both during the competition and when he was awarded the Silver Medal on the Olympic podium. Before him, Teddy Riner, a French judoka, was given a hard time after he defeated local hero Rafael "Baby" Silva in their quarterfinal. Riner went on to win his semifinal and final bouts, all the while being booed and attempting in vain to shush the crowd.
Other great champions such as Spanish basketball player Pau Gasol, Belgian tennis player David Goffin, American soccer goalie Hope Solo — there were "Zika Zika" chants directed at her after she had expressed reservations about coming to Brazil due to the virus — and U.S. star gymnast Simone Biles were all greeted by boos without regard for their respective sporting merit.
Brazilian fans are used to making it very clear who they love, and loathe. Sports is an experience of taking sides, and the Olympics are no exception.
They'll pick the short one over the tall one, the pretty gal (Swiss volleyball player Anouk Vergé-Dépré, who turned out to be very popular) over the plain one, and the smiling guy (Usain Bolt) over the grumpy-looking one. If it is not always obvious who they're rooting for, it is easier to identify who they're rooting against.
Brazilians jeer at anyone suspected of doping, at all the opponents of home-grown athletes, and, of course at those competing for the eternally despised neighbor, Argentina.
The Groffs came from Atlanta to support their niece, Sarah True, who competes in the triathlon event. The two sports enthusiasts, who had attended the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, are disappointed by the behavior in the stadiums. "That's not what the Olympic spirit is about."
IOC spokesman Mark Adams said: "We want to encourage freedom of speech," in reference to the boos aimed at American sprinter Justin Gatlin, who had tested positive for a banned substance in 2011. As for Gatlin's rival, Usain Bolt, "That's the first time I've gone into a stadium and they've started to boo," he said. "It surprised me."
IOC officials have admitted that this "violation" to the norms of proper Olympic conduct is embarrassing. But what can be done? To blame the Brazilian spectators means to send them the message that they are not familiar with the Olympic codes, that they are not part of the family.
IOC President Thomas Bach had earlier said South America's first ever Games should be experiences as "the Olympics made in Brazil." But after Tuesday's booing of French pole vaulter Lavillenie on the medal podium, Bach called it "shocking behavior ... unacceptable at the Olympics."
When asked about it, Brazilian journalists don't seem to really understand the controversy. Wednesday's edition of the Rio daily Extra added their own boos at the tearful Lavillenie, whom they accused of "arrogance."
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Aug. 17 front page of Brazilian sports paper Extra
O Globo mentioned the situation, but made no plans to change their own fiercely pro-Brazil coverage: "The Brazilians are irritating foreign people by being as thrilled in the Olympic stands as they are in soccer stadiums." A more critical journalist from Folha de S. Paulo wrote, "Brazilian supporters need to learn some manners."
Calls for fair play were then made (and happened to be heard) before the basketball game between Brazil and Argentina; the crowd managed to back Britain's Andy Murray without booing Argentine Juan Martin del Potro during the tennis final, and the Brazilian beach volley team was defeated by the Russians in suitable conditions.
In short, the reception of this "soccer atmosphere" varies from sport to sport. It is excessive but not unusual when dealing with team sports, distracting in disciplines that require concentration, toxic in contests evaluated by judges and irrelevant in "fun sports," where the sound system and the DJ are nosier than anything else.
Maybe British golfer Dany Willett put it in all in perspective when asked about the Brazilian fans: "They look happy."