Rio Olympics 2016: Why booing of French pole vaulter 'should not be condemned'

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French pole vaulter booed on podium

Like many observers of the Rio Olympics, American sociologist Peter Kaufman was shocked by the spectacle of French pole vaulter Renaud Lavillenie being booed by local fans during and after his duel with Brazilian athlete Thiago Braz.

But what really bothered the academic was the condemnation of the supporters that followed.

Kaufman, an associate professor of sociology at the State University of New York who has studied crowd reactions to athletes, reckons the widespread criticism of the passion shown by local fans, including an angry condemnation by International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach, was unjustified.

"The IOC has much more important issues to worry about than supporters booing competitions," he said.

"There has been a backlash towards the home fans and I find it interesting that people are not looking at the fact that crowd behaviour is a matter of cultural values.

"Why is the way Brazilians cheer or jeer 'wrong'? What we know as reality is shaped by the environment we grew up in", Kaufman told BBC Brasil.

"Each culture has its own beliefs and values and in some of them you will even find that applauding effusively is considered rude."

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So why do people boo, then?

Kaufman says academics regard jeering as a form of social interaction concerned with more than just the outcome of a sporting competition.

"The Olympics have a much broader meaning and when Brazilians boo they might be actually defying authority rather than only trying to influence the outcome of a match," he said.

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Thiago Braz da Silva sets new Olympic record in gold medal win

And he says he rather enjoys the rowdiness of the local fans.

"It's fascinating that rules of engagement and behaviour can be so different from country to country," said Kaufman.

"The IOC shouldn't be so surprised by the passion shown by Brazilian fans. Booing is only as 'wrong' as cheering. Both are expressions of values and beliefs.

"If Fifa had banned the vuvuzelas in the 2010 football World Cup in South Africa, no matter how deafening they sounded even on TV, they would have amputated a cultural component of that society".

But doesn't Kaufman think booing is unfair on the athletes?

Up to a point, but he reckons competitors should not really be shocked - at least, not to the extent of Lavillenie, who made comments, for which he later apologised, linking Brazilian fans to crowds in Nazi Germany at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

IAAF president and track legend Lord Coe consoles Lavillenie
IAAF president and track legend Lord Coe consoles Lavillenie

"The targets of booing can be excused for feeling offended, sad and even threatened by a raucous crowd. We can't blame them for not having time to think of cultural aspects when they are much more worried about sporting performance," he said.

"It's understandable that the French athlete got upset, but he was competing against a Brazilian athlete in front of a home crowd. It was inevitable that the fans would pick on him," he argues.

But Kaufman has no sympathy with calls for crowd behaviour to be curbed.

"Sport is passionate and exciting and people are also making political statements. Brazilian fans booed Russian athletes because of the doping allegations, for example, or simply picked on Argentine fans because of the soccer rivalry. But to talk about a 'more appropriate' way of supporting is an attitude of cultural imperialism," he says.

He is not even convinced there is any reason to complain about excessive noise in sports where silence is required, such as tennis.

"Maybe we should use this controversy to discuss issues such as why it is OK for a penalty-taker in football to have a whole stadium roaring at him while tennis demands silence, especially while players are serving," he said. "I don't see a lot of difference for the athletes involved in terms of technical requirements."

"Pole-vaulter Renaud Lavillenie consoled by Thiago Braz and Sergei Bubka after he was booed at medal ceremony", tweeted the IOC Media account
"Pole vaulter Renaud Lavillenie consoled by Thiago Braz and Sergey Bubka after he was booed at medal ceremony", tweeted the IOC Media account

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