Amy Bass: Russian team, tarnished by doping scandal. was booed at freestyle relay; almost unheard of at Olympics
She says Brazilians make feelings known, Russians being held up to notable derision. Expect more of same
Editor’s Note: Amy Bass, a professor of history at the College of New Rochelle, is the author of “Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete.” Former supervisor of NBC’s Olympic Research Room, she is a veteran of eight Olympics, with an Emmy win in 2012. Follow her on Twitter @bassab1. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
It was one of the most hotly anticipated events of the Rio Olympics – the men’s 4x100m freestyle relay, and the crowd was revved and ready Sunday night. A lot of competitive history was at stake.
So when the relay squads walked out, fans greeted them with all of the intensity that such a marquee event deserves.
Except for the Russians. When the Russians walked out, the thunderous cheers from the international crowd turned to jeers.
Suddenly, there was booing in the Olympic Games. And that’s rare. The global event traditionally sees fans adopting underdogs and cheering on the very last competitor to cross the line, rather than throwing shade in any direction.
But who could blame the crowd that filled the seats that night? The International Olympic Committee, by letting a sullied team compete, left the crowd to dispense the kind of justice that it did not when it allowed the Russian delegation to take part, setting a tone for competition in Rio that feels like no other Olympics before.
At least on paper, the Olympics emphasize the coming together of the world around sport, with the vast majority of athletes assembling to participate, rather than win, something that fans appreciate. Indeed, the horrific crash during the women’s bicycle road race on Sunday vividly demonstrated what could be called Olympic empathy, as the concern for injured leader Annemiek van Vlueten almost overshadowed the eventual victory of Anna van der Breggen.
But there is little of that goodwill for the Russian team, it seems, which arrived in Rio under a tremendous amount of scrutiny, having gotten its hands caught in the doping cookie jar. The details of an elaborate state-sponsored doping program made evident in the recently released McLaren report made many question whether Russia should be allowed to field a team at all.
In June, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) banned the Russian track and field team, refusing to lift the team’s international suspension from last fall so that the athletes might compete in Rio. Last month, the IOC upheld that decision, but would not support a full ban of the delegation.
So when the Russians, historically an Olympic powerhouse, marched into Rio’s Maracana Stadium at the Opening Ceremonies on Friday, they confronted the fallout (and perhaps a preview of what was to come in competition): a decidedly mixed reaction from the crowd. With the remaining 271 of the original 389-member team parading in, the audience politely applauded, and some audibly booed.
In contrast, the 10-member refugee team, the last team to enter before Brazil, brought thousands to their feet.
To be sure, Brazilians are nothing if not professional sports fans, and they rarely if ever hold back. For example, when longtime national rival Argentina walked in to Maracana, the Brazilian fans jeered them accordingly.
They are also willing to take an individual athlete to task, evidenced by the chants of “Ziiiiika!” every time American soccer goalie Hope Solo makes one of her legendary saves. Solo had made her hesitations about traveling to Rio well known in the months leading up the Olympics, finally deciding to compete after packing a trove of mosquito repellent.
But there seems to be a special kind of international bonding going on over dissing the Russian athletes. At aquatics, the very diverse crowd greeted Russia’s Yulia Efimova with boos and catcalls before her first heat in the women’s 100m breast stroke.
Efimova was one of seven Russian swimmers originally banned from Rio but then reinstated. She served a 16-month suspension earlier in her career.
When Efimova waved her finger after finishing first in her semifinal, the universal symbol for being #1, American Lilly King threw it right back at her: she waved her own finger in a mocking fashion, obviously calling out Efimova’s bold move.
After finishing first in her own semifinal, King told NBC’s poolside reporter, “You wave your finger ‘number one’ and you’ve been caught drug cheating?” King said, setting up a final smackdown reminiscent of Cold War days. “I’m not a fan.”
By allowing the Russians to compete, the International Olympic Committee has created a situation with few precedents.
But Sunday night, make no mistake, the crowd set one of its own, resoundingly excoriating the Russian relay team, which finished a disappointing fourth place – while Michael Phelps, who added gold medal number 19 to his haul, talked after the race about returning the coveted relay title to “American soil.”
It may be a tough two weeks as the Russians continue to navigate their way through the Rio schedule.