Before the Rio Games men's table tennis quarterfinals began last week in Riocentro, the announcer politely asked fans not to boo. If you didn't think table tennis had hostile crowds, you're not alone.
"[I've] never heard that at a table tennis event," said Sean O'Neill, the director of communications for U.S. Table Tennis and former Olympian who has been involved with the sport since its Olympic debut in 1988. "Must be [an] Olympic suggestion."
Indeed, table tennis is hardly the only event at the Rio Olympics where spectators have been encouraged not to boo. At the beach volleyball arena during the first weekend of action, Brazilian fans booed every serve by the Czech Republic women's team against the home squad. Between points, the public address announcer said somewhat sarcastically, "We'd like to thank you for not booing"—to which the crowd, appropriately enough, replied with even louder jeers.
On Saturday, fans' rowdy behavior during the men's tennis semi-final between Rafael Nadal and Juan Martin del Potro resulted in a rather pointed rebuke from the chair umpire.
A spokesperson for the IOC told me that trying to quell booing is a Rio 2016 organizing committee decision. "This process is all part of the communal learning of new sports which many Brazilian fans are going through at present—spreading previously less popular sports to South America is a key part of our legacy of the games," a spokesman said.
On August 9, Rio 2016 director of communicationsMario Andrada elaborated on this in a press conference. "What we're looking for here is to balance passion and good behavior, without killing passion," he said. "It's a process of approaching the fans, discussing things with them, through the media, through the social networks, but we like to have passion around and we like them to be passionate about sport."
However it's phrased, there's an obvious culture clash at play. Brazilians are used to going to soccer matches, where fans create a festive—and at times, hostile—atmosphere. Fan behavior spans the spectrum of emotions, and includes taunting and booing. For them, this is a natural part of the sporting experience and always has been. During the games, they have brought this same spirit and culture to other sports, ones where fan behavior is traditionally more restrained.
To wit: Brazilian fans have even booed their own cherished national men's soccer team during these Olympics after a couple of lackluster matches in the group stage.
If you're the type of person who buys into the idea of the Olympic Movement, which is founded on the ideals of fair play and good sportsmanship, then you might agree with Dutch beach volleyball pair Alexander Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen, who weren't particularly happy with fan negativity. "I totally agree that it's a shame for our sport that people in the crowd are starting to boo when the other team is serving," Meeuwsen said after a victory against Poland. "Of course they want to cheer for Brazil, they can cheer for good points, but I think that's not a very fair and sportsmanlike way of playing. I think it's lack of respect, so I'm really disappointed in the Brazil audience that does this."
Brouwer interjected to add, "It doesn't belong to our sport."
"We are trying to help Brazilians to understand the right moment and the right level of passion," Andrada, the Rio spokesman, told reporters. "We would rather have some passion than none at all, and it's a learning curve. And they will be getting better and better as the days move on."
Sportsmanlike or not, it's undeniably strange that the host country is being told how to behave, which itself is considered rude in nearly every culture in the world.
In the run-up to the games, NBC ran an ad spot asking American athletes what they looked forward to most about Rio. "Culture" was the overwhelming response, resulting in a short montage of several athletes including Michael Phelps repeating the word "culture" over and over. Of course, NBC edited out any details about what Rio's culture actually means to them. Now that the games have begun, the Olympics are asking Brazilians to forsake a key part of their sporting culture, the better to conform to the IOC's version of it. This begs the question of whether the Games are for celebrating different cultures, or forcing them to subsume themselves to a single homogenous code of conduct.
Not all athletes are bothered by the booing. Pablo Herrera, a Spanish beach volleyball player, said booing "belongs to the game. This is what beach volleyball is all about, so it's definitely better for the game if people are getting emotional."
His fellow Spanish beach volleyball teammates, Liliana Fernandez Steiner and Else Baquerizo, agreed with Herrera, despite having been booed themselves in their victory against a Brazilian team. "We're in Brazil, you know, it's just normal," Steiner said.
"I think it's fine," Baquerizo added. "But if [the organizers] think it's disrespectful, then I respect their opinion, I don't know." She laughed, obviously jubilant from their win and not wanting to talk herself into trouble. "Whatever they say."