Booing and Brazil

RIO de JANEIRO — You might have heard: They like to boo in Brazil. The Portuguese word for it is “vaia” which roughly translates to “hoot.” There is some serious vaia-lence going on here.

I would like to seriously apologize to everyone for that horrifying stomach-turning pun — I blame my 14-year-old daughter who has become enraptured by puns, the worse the better. I’ve been gone from her too long.

People boo everywhere, of course. Well, that’s not true, in some parts of the world fans whistle when they are unhappy. In some parts they stomp. I guess some people point their thumbs to the ground to express disapproval — or maybe that’s just in the 1970s sitcoms. Anyway, in general, whether it’s Philadelphia or Upper Darby or North Philadelphia or Swarthmore or South Philadelphia, there is booing.

And this is especially true in Brazil.

“This is part of our culture,” Rio 2016 spokesman Mario Andrada explains. He goes on to say that with Brazil being such a football-mad country, booing comes naturally. It is the passion of the country coming out. It is the fervor and madness that people here feel for sport.

That said, yeah, he and everyone else might would prefer if maybe there was a little bit less passion coming out.

At swimming last week, the booing of Russian swimmer Yulia Efimova was intense enough that she was in tears. The booing of French pole vaulter Renaud Lavillenie was so fierce — in large part because he was the main rival of Brazilian Thiago Braz da Silva — that he gave the fan the thumbs down sigh (see, it does happen!) and made an ill-advised comparison to the treatment of Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics. He apologized for being overdramatic but admitted he was shaken. He was then booed even more viciously on the medal stand.

“I didn’t expect it to be so violent,” he said afterward.

The Brazilian soccer team, of course, was booed, particularly during a couple of lackluster nil-nil draws against South Africa and Iraq. They are used to getting booed. Heck, star Neymar was booed in the mixed zone — by journalists. Then there’s the story of a tennis ball boy who couldn’t quite get the handle of a ball — he got booed. The USA chant has been booed. The women’s Romanian handball team has been booed. They’ve had to stop the action at beach volleyball, at tennis, even at shooting, because of booing.

Andrada and the IOC has had to step in and ask people here to stop booing.

“I was in South Africa for the World Cup,” Andrada said. “Over there, they had the vuvuzelas (translated: horribly annoying horns). It was part of their culture. By the second week, nobody could stand the vuvuzelas. … I think that’s how it is with the booing now.”

“Brazilians seem to be pretty egalitarian,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams said. “They seem to be able to boo athletes from many countries.”

They both said that while everyone wants the Brazilian fans to feel the joy and emotion of the Olympics, well, those fans just need to stop booing everybody and everything. The Olympics, they insist, are supposed to be bigger than that, they are supposed to be about unity and sportsmanship, they are supposed to be … just STOP with the booing already.

But it’s one thing to ask people to stop booing (“We need to help Brazilians understand,” Andrada said) and quite another to change people’s habits and nature. I’m reminded of the time I watched a baseball game in Japan. It was just DIFFERENT. Same sport I’ve known all my life. Same rules. But the fans were so different, they clapped at different times from what I’d known, sang songs out of nowhere, waved inflatables that apparently had a special meaning, were utterly silent when I expected raucous cheers. It was wild and eerie and, I realized, this was not just how Japanese fans watched baseball. This was the heart of Japanese sports fan on display.

So it goes here. Everybody knows that the country is dealing with numerous scandals all at once — political, economic, security. These Olympics spark a wide variety of emotion in people here from pride to rage. And don’t even get anyone started on Ryan Lochte. This is my ninth Olympics and each of them has a unique feel. Sydney was a big and happy party. Beijing was about precision and control. London was musical and cosmopolitan and glamorous.

And Rio is about the fire and spirit of the Brazilian people. Nobody likes booing at the Olympics, particularly when booing athletes on the medal stand. It’s not right. But, as one Brazilian volunteer explained, “We can’t always keep it in. But please remember, we cheer loud too.”

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