Why Russians may bare their teeth at the World Cup

As host to the soccer tournament, Russia hopes to not only spruce up its image but teach new habits to its people, such as smiling in public. Mega sporting events have a way of universalizing the best in humanity.

AP Photo
A Cossack smiles during practice near the World Cup stadium in Rostov-on-Don, before the Russian premier league soccer match between Rostov and Ural May 13.

 Travel, it turns out, can both broaden the mind and the mouth. In Russia, which is hosting the World Cup starting Thursday, public transport workers have been trained to smile at the estimated 1.5 million foreign spectators attending the 31-day, 11-city soccer tournament.

This behavioral modification in cheerfulness – smiling in public is often frowned upon in Russia – is just one way the country is using the mega sports event to not only improve its tarnished image but teach Russians to act differently.

Authorities have also instituted an alcohol ban on certain trains, taught English to taxi drivers, and barred hundreds of well-known soccer hooligans from the games. Russians in the 11 cities are being asked to be courteous to the guests and also pick up litter. And a former soccer player, Alexei Smertin, has been hired to be an inspector for racist chants during matches.

Many countries that have hosted the World Cup or Olympics have tried to change local customs or import new ones. For the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China set up no-smoking sections and removed dog meat from restaurants. In the 1964 Olympics, Tokyo shooed away its organized criminals, or yakuza.

High-profile sports competitions are often not just about the athletics. They are also designed to leave a legacy for residents in a host country, such as new infrastructure or a boost in tourism and national prestige. But sports events can also reinforce universal values, such as the spirit of volunteering, or new public behavior, such as smiling in public.

Just by the nature of the events, both hosts and foreign fans often learn to try on different identities, rising above differences over race, religion, or nationality. The crossing of cultural barriers helps build trust and openness.

Even FIFA, the international soccer governing body and organizer of the World Cup, is trying to change fan behavior. For the first time, it is setting an “anti-discrimination monitoring system” at the matches in Russia. If fans become too unruly and rude, referees on the pitch can stop or suspend a game.

“We hope equality and understanding will be the prevalent story of Russia 2018,” says Piara Powar, executive director of the Fare Network, an umbrella group trying to combat inequality in world soccer.

At the least, this World Cup may be remembered for its smiling Russians.

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