RIO DE JANEIRO — Forget the snarling traffic and unexpected rainstorms. Foreign spectators and athletes at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro have something else to get used to: The boisterous booing and sometimes thunderous taunts of Brazilian fans who aren’t satisfied to just sit back and watch the action unfold.
Feeling lost in translation? You’re not alone.
“I can’t hear my coach. Calm down,” Brazilian fencer Ghislain Perrier, who was raised in France, said in rough Portuguese during a match as rowdy spectators chanted “Uh! You’re gonna die! Uh! You’re gonna die!” in the direction of his opponent. (They weren’t serious, of course.)
“En garde” is usually the loudest call one hears during fencing, which requires such intense concentration that etiquette typically permits applause only between bouts. But local fans prefer to cheer against Brazilian rivals with the war cry “vai morrer,” commonly bellowed at mixed martial arts events. The same chants can be heard this week at judo and boxing.
In Brazil, spectators follow their own set of rules: Always support the underdog. Boo referees, umpires and judges whenever a decision goes against the home team. And no dig is off-limits, even if offensive.
Consider Friday’s opening ceremony. Locals booed interim Brazilian President Michel Temer, gave South American rival Argentina a mixed welcome, and cheered countries with seemingly little connection to Brazil. One of them was Switzerland.
“It is because many of our politicians have secret bank accounts there,” said Renato Santos, a Rio businessman. “How come people abroad didn’t get that joke?”
While hardly an underdog, China has garnered support from many Brazilian fans at Olympic events. But one of the most popular chants when Chinese athletes are competing is “Yakisoba,” which is a Japanese noodle dish that happens to be popular in Brazil. Others have made reference to a local Chinese chain restaurant, trying to show their support by shouting “China In Box.”
Business consultant Rafael Salies, a Brazilian who’s taken part in the mockery, says the fans mean no affront. “This is Rio, and people find it funny. Nothing else.”
The darling of Olympic boos so far has been American soccer goalkeeper Hope Solo. Before the Olympics, she had a lot of fans in soccer-crazy Brazil, but they felt disappointed after she used social media to spread alarm over the Zika virus. Now, every time she takes a goal kick, unforgiving spectators roar “ZEE-KAH!”
“Everyone will adapt,” said Mario Andrada, a spokesman for the local organizing committee. “Brazilians are loud fans. This is Latin America, and that’s how people cheer.”
South American athletes barely flinch at the cheers and jeers, but some other athletes have taken to retorts. Italian tennis player Fabio Fognini shouted “Louder, Louder!” when he and Andreas Seppi beat Brazilians Andre Sa and Thomaz Bellucci in doubles.
Others have actually enjoyed the rambunctiousness. “You can feel it in the water, it is just so loud,” American swimmer Michael Phelps said. “It is a great energy.”
Top-seeded tennis player Novak Djokovic went even further. “This crowd makes me feel Brazilian, that’s why I am crying. I didn’t want to disappoint them,” he said after losing to Argentina’s Juan Martin del Potro.
Adversaries aren’t Brazilian fans’ only prey, by the way. The host nation’s soccer players endured endless booing during their first match and, in the second, the local crowd even began rooting for opponent Iraq instead.