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Russians draw Olympic boos, but is it fair?

USA TODAY SPORTS USA TODAY SPORTS 11/08/2016 by Martin Rogers and Alan Gomez, USA TODAY
Russians draw Olympic boos, but is it fair? © Provided by USA Today Sports Russians draw Olympic boos, but is it fair?

RIO DE JANEIRO – Eliane Maria Fonseca had three goals as she awaited a bus to Rio’s Olympic Park. Fonseca, whose family runs an executive cleaning business near Rio, wanted to see Brazil’s men’s basketball team win, pick up a T-shirt for her young nephew and...

“Boo the Russians,” Fonseca, 34, told USA TODAY Sports, laughing.

The Summer Games has 28 sports for fans to watch and other activities that they pursue fiercely enough to be counted as sport. Pin trading, souvenir collecting, and yes,at this Olympics, giving members of Vladimir Putin’s traveling brigade some verbal volleys.

Putin didn’t pick the team himself, but the ugly revelations surrounding Russia’s state-sponsored doping program have provided the kind of link between sports and politics that fans of athletics generally detest.

“For me it is that it came from the government,” “Bill” Cruz, 31, a Copacabana sales leader, said. “We have a problem in Brazil with politicians who do whatever they want in the name of greed and hurt the people. To me it feels like the Russians are representing their government, not just their country.”

The Aquatics Center, where Fonseca was planning to let out her ire, has been the center point for anti-Russian feeling, with controversial breaststroke specialist Yulia Efimova bearing the brunt of the fallout. Efimova, banned two years ago after testing positive for a banned substance, then again this year after meldonium was found in her system, was reinstated after the Opening Ceremony, which only intensified the controversy.

She was jeered every time she took to the pool in the heats, semis and final of the 100-meter breaststroke, where she finished second behind American teenager Lilly King. King made no secret of the fact that she resented competing against a confirmed drug cheat, setting up a Cold War showdown in the pool and subsequent press conferences.

“I think there’s a good vs. evil element here, whether it’s spot-on accurate, whether or not it’s fair,” NBC poolside reporter Michele Tafoya said. “There has definitely been a mood here when the Russians – and particularly Efimova (swim). The rest of the swimming venue didn’t appreciate it. They’re tired of kind of this tolerance of cheating.”

New phenomenon

Tafoya said booing at international swimming events was virtually unheard of. After the opening night of competition, several non-competing Russian athletes arrived to watch the action and brought thundersticks with them, presumably to drown out the noise of the jeers. USA TODAY Sports approached six of them to request comment. All refused.

According to Bill Smith, a professor at the University of Idaho who studies the intersection of sports and international affairs, sports fans associating athletes directly to their government and its policies is a new phenomenon.

With the exception of the famed 1980 Soviet hockey team, whose players were active members of the Red Army, Smith said American viewers were willing to root for some Soviet athletes just as they adopt top athletes from other nations.

Vasily Alekseyev, a Soviet weightlifter who won gold in the 1972 and 1976 Games, landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Gymnasts Larisa Latynina and Olga Korbut were admired in the U.S., where they became household names during the 1960s and ‘70s.

“If you expressed admiration for the Soviets, you could be in real trouble,” said Smith, director of the Martin Institute at the university. “But you could look at someone from the Soviet bloc and there was space to be supportive of the other.”

Smith continued: “In this case, the fans seem to be taking it out on the athletes as being complicit in the Russian scheme.”

Unfair to athletes?

The anti-Russian feeling has not sat comfortably with everyone. After Efimova was pictured in floods of tears after losing to King on Monday, the boos have quieted significantly.

“I feel part of it is unfair (to the Russians),” said Ian Apple, a 22-year-old from Jacksonville, Fla., who was the captain of the Florida State University swimming team this year and took part in the Olympic Trials for 2016. Despite not making the team, he came to Rio to root on his friends, Caeleb Dressel and Ryan Murphy, and was stunned to hear the boos raining down on Russian swimmers.

“But I do understand it,” Apple added. “It definitely makes the meet a whole lot more interesting.”

Nicole Wissler, 30, an Orlando legal assistant attending the Games with her sister, said she did not expect raucous booing in such a jovial atmosphere as the Olympics. She said people in the crowd typically applaud every athlete as they’re introduced, cheer for all at the end of the event and congratulate them when they’re receiving their medals. Booing?

“It’s not a college football game,” she said. 

In gymnastics, where doping is not considered to be an issue, Russia has been treated like any other country. When track and field begins on Friday, there will be no Russian team to boo, although female long jumper Darya Klishina has been allowed to compete as an individual.

Yet even if there had been no scandal, there's still a long-running  Olympic rivalry between the Russians and Americans, and neither side likes to lose.

In boxing, American Nico Hernandez on Monday upset Russian Vasilii Egorov, the No. 2 seed in the light flyweight division. Mike Martino, the executive director of USA Boxing, received an email from Scott Blackmun, executive director of the United States Olympic Committee.


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