Why Brazilians can’t help booing anything and everyone at the Olympics

It’s nothing personal. Except when it is.
It’s nothing personal. Except when it is.
Image: Reuters/Sergio Moraes
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Rio de Janeiro

It didn’t take long for the Brazilians to rewrite the norms of Olympic fandom.

The list of Olympic participants targeted by Brazilian boos is long and varied: Russians, due to its doping scandal; Spaniards, as symbols of Latin American colonialism; a tennis ball boy who had butterfingers; favorites—like the poor Romanian women’s handball team—when they played the underdogs; and, of course, anyone from Brazil’s historic rival Argentina, who probably get the worst of it.

Pole vaulter Renaud Lavillenie was booed by the Rio fans—twice in 24 hours—to the point he was in floods of tears on the podium, leading the International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach to take the unprecedented step of saying the crowd’s antics were “unacceptable at the Olympics.”

The fans were so boisterous at a beach volleyball game between the Brazilian and Czech teams that the public address announcer had to repeatedly admonish them against booing the visitors (link in Portuguese). A normally staid air-pistol event almost turned into a melee when unruly Brazilian fans tried rattling the concentration of foreigners as they pulled the trigger (link in Portuguese).

At a tennis match where fans heckled the player from Argentina, there was a scuffle in the stands (link in Spanish)—perhaps the first ever case of tennis hooliganism.

In London four years ago, the British fans got behind not only their own country, but every other in the spirit of sportsmanship. Alberto Murray Neto, a Brazilian lawyer who has served in the past on the Brazilian Olympic Committee, says that as Brazilian soccer dominated the sporting culture here, mastering the codes of other sports will be a learning process for many people who have never seen them played.  ”This is the Brazilian way, which is different from the very proper English way in 2012,” he says.

At the Riocentro sports complex on Friday night (Aug. 12), the fans were as much the talk of foreign tourists and athletes as the Games themselves. Marian Busch, a German tourist, said Brazilians are wonderful people—as long as you don’t run into them in the bleachers.  “They do things that would be considered unfair and unsporting in Europe,” she says.

While the weightlifters were pictures of concentration as they crouched over their bars, the low roar from the stands never diminished. The seemingly oblivious Brazilian rooters were shooting selfies, gobbling up  concession stand snacks and engaging unashamedly in public displays of affection. At one point, when the noise seemed to be distracting a Ukrainian lifter, a group of Ukrainian fans, who looked as pumped up as some of the participants, brusquely told some nearby Brazilians to knock it off.

Russian gymnast Alexei Nemov tries to calm the crowd down.
Russian gymnast Alexei Nemov tries to calm the crowd down.
Image: Reuters

In another arena, Australia and Malaysia were doing battle in badminton. For reasons that weren’t clear, a large contingent of Brazilians had adopted the Australian cause that night—more loudly than the Aussies themselves.

Sometimes, the fans just seemed to make noise for its own sake. At one point during a ping-pong event, a cheer went up incongruously in the middle of a long volley. It turned out fans were applauding a slender fellow in a track suit who happened to be sauntering past the bleachers.

‘Need to vent’

Olympic organizers have already asked the crowd to rein it in. “We’ll ask the fans for more silence and elegance during the competitions,” Rio Olympics spokesman Mario Andrada said last week. “The passion of the Brazilian fans pleases us all, but it’s necessary to respect the adversary. The Olympics aren’t fútbol games.”

Besides the tradition of soccer, the unruly behavior may have something to do with the hard times Brazilians are currently enduring, sports sociologist Mauricio Murad told Quartz. With Brazil’s president facing impeachment while the country endures its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the scream coming from the bleachers is a  primal one, Murad says. “Brazilians need to vent right now, and I think that’s what we’re seeing in the stands at the Olympics,” he said.

The bad behavior in the bleachers is also a consequence of Brazilians’ relatively limited interaction with the rest of the world historically, said Ronaldo Lemos, director of the Institute for Technology and Society in Rio de Janeiro. “The issue here is that Brazil is basically a very closed and insular country,” he said. “Brazilians do not live on a day-to-day basis with international people.”

Having not traveled very much, he added, Brazilians may believe that their own manners are “universal.” That is, this is how everyone behaves.

Columnist Marcos Sergio Silva wrote that the conduct of fans also reflects the tendency of Brazilians to turn every event into a morality play along the lines of a telenovela, or soap opera. “At bottom, we’re Manichean in the extreme and we always need to select villains,” he wrote (link in Portuguese).

The German tennis player Dustin Brown, who was getting booed while competing against Brazilian Thomaz Bellucci,  actually seemed to relish the villain’s role, egging the hostile crowd on. Chinese table tennis player Zhang Jike put his index finger to his lips to quiet the fans (link in Portuguese).

Of course, that only made the jeering worse.