RIO DE JANEIRO — It’s their party and they’ll boo if they want to.
It has taken Rio a while to get excited about South America’s first Olympic Games, but the city was filled with yellow Brazil shirts on Sunday night and the increasingly boisterous crowds suggested Olympic fever was starting to catch on.
Brazil’s second match in the soccer tournament—rather than some of the more traditional Olympic sports—explained the sheer volume of Brazil jerseys on show, but that spirit could prove contagious if the team improves on tonight’s dismal draw with Iraq and puts together a successful run to the gold medal match.
As passions rise in Brazil, however, outsiders are starting to complain about the rowdy crowds. Whether its beach volleyball, boxing, basketball, or swimming, the spectators in the stands have been whipped into the kind of frenzy not always seen at the Olympics.
Naturally the biggest roar of the first night of swimming was reserved for the two Brazilians who secured third place in their heats rather than the stunning swims that secured gold medals and world records.
It was no surprise that the neighborhood rivals Argentina were booed as they marched into the Maracanã during the Opening Ceremony.
What the athletes are finding stranger is the extension of this raucous crowd mentality to games that feature no local rooting interest at all.
The crowds are picking a team—usually the underdog—and backing them all the way. In Brazilian sporting terms that means cheering your side while booing the other guys and reveling in their mistakes.
In a basketball match on Sunday, the pre-match favorites Spain took a commanding early lead over Croatia. So the Brazil fans started backing Croatia. They cheered every Croatia basket but also booed and jeered whenever Pau Gasol’s Spain had a chance, celebrating when they missed free throws. Eventually Spain crumbled to a shock 72-70 defeat.
“It’s part of the party,” said Emanuel Morgado, 35. “They want to take out the concentration of the opposition, but it’s just theater.”
It was the same in the beach volleyball arena as Germany was cruising to victory over Egypt. The crowd was fairly muted until the Europeans took a big lead, at that point the Cariocas—Rio residents—got behind the Egyptian women, who are able to compete now that bikinis are no longer mandatory. They cheered when the Germans served into the net and jumped up and down whenever the Egyptians scraped a point.
The Brazilians love a hopeless underdog. “The people of Rio are always excited, and then disappointed, and then excited again,” said Marcel Pragana, a musician. “That’s why nothing ever changes in Brazil.”
Other Brazilians expressed more sorrow over the outspoken fans. “Brazil is a stupid motherfucking country,” said Pedro de Mourgado, who was visiting Rio from his home in the capital, Brasilia. “People are not very educated.”
It remains to be seen if it holds true, but the crowd’s choice of underdog so far tends to favor countries outside of Europe and the U.S. “People do think, ‘I know what you’ve got, and I know what I’ve got and that’s not fair,’” said Mario Terra, 22, from the Tijuca district of Rio. “As Shakespeare said, ‘There is no darkness but ignorance.’”
The jingoism may have gone a little far during one of the tennis matches on Sunday. A hyped-up crowd was backing local hero Thomaz Bellucci so vociferously that they booed heavily when his German opponent, Dustin Brown, collapsed to the ground with a twisted ankle. He was eventually forced to withdraw from the match and head to the hospital.
“When you play in Europe, the people are more calm,” said Bellucci after the game. “In Brazil, people go crazy and it’s very nice.”
Team USA has received more than its fair share of the boos thus far, mostly just because they are far from the underdogs, but there are also grievances about America’s perceived reluctance to come to Brazil.
Most Cariocas think its hilarious and pathetic that foreign athletes are scared of catching Zika during Rio’s winter months when mosquitoes are scarce.
Hope Solo, the U.S. women’s soccer team’s goalkeeper, has been the focus of these frustrations after her very public queries over the safety of traveling to Brazil.
Every time she touched the ball in the first two U.S. matches she was greeted by a cacophony of boos or chants of “Ziiiiiika! Ziiiiiika!”
That chant obviously tickled the watching Brazilian public as it reappeared at the Copacabana on Sunday with spectators calling out the name of the virus whenever Lauren Fendrick or Brooke Sweat prepared to serve in beach volleyball, even though neither of the Americans had expressed concern about coming to Rio.
If Team USA was feeling picked upon, however, they ought to recall that Brazilian President Michel Temer tried unsuccessfully to hide from the merciless boos during the Opening Ceremony.
In fact, the International Olympic Committee has been forced to call explicitly for a ban on demonstrations against the interim president after several sets of fans were prevented from protesting against him during Olympic events.
Even the nation’s darlings, the Brazil soccer team, are not immune. They have so far played two matches, four halves—all of which ended 0-0.
Four times they have been booed off.