Brazilian boos at women's volleyball final: Gold won but Olympic spirit lost?

At the women's volleyball final Saturday, Brazil dominated the US for a deserved gold. But the Brazilian crowd's tone turned foul, raising questions about the Olympic spirit at Rio 2016.

Dave Martin/AP
Brazil celebrates their victory over the United States in the women's gold medal volleyball match at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Saturday in London.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

The world got a taste of what Rio 2016 might feel like at the women's volleyball gold-medal match, and it was at once a carnival and, perhaps, just a bit of a funeral.

In the end, there was no doubting how much it meant to the Brazilians, as they collapsed in a jubilant heap after the match's final point, wrapped in each other and their own disbelief. Volleyball is a national passion, and after losing the men's soccer final to Mexico earlier in the day, a win here seemed a golden tonic.  

Nor was there any doubting that it was a gold medal thoroughly deserved. From the second set of their four-set demolition of a US team ranked No. 1 in the world, their volleyball was irresistible. Feeding off a crowd that was overwhelmingly Brazilian and louder than a jumbo jet at takeoff, every block, dig, and spike was party waiting to be unleashed, a Brazilian flag dancing in every aisle.

But it came at a cost, and one that will only be more pronounced come 2016. 

The Olympic spirit.

The Olympics, after all, are not just another World League or Brazilian Superliga match.

They are the Olympics.

They are the place where American and Iranian wrestlers can stand atop the podium with nothing but friendship and mutual respect. They are where those who do not come first are cheered as earnestly as those who do. They are our two-week window into humanity's better nature, frankly.    

And that was conspicuously absent at Earl's Court Saturday, as from the second set onward, the Brazilian fans booed loudly as every American stepped up to serve.  

Whether or not it influenced the match or not is immaterial. If it did, it was only in helping the Brazilian team, which is notorious for playing on emotion. The US women, who face crowds much worse than this when they play on the road, probably found this tame. The booing is no excuse for their collapse after dominating the first set 25-11, and to their credit, the players did not try to make it one.

It is also immaterial whether it was malicious. "It's their culture," said American outside hitter Logan Tom after the match. "It's not an insult."

Indeed, the Brazilian fans cheered heartily for the US and for bronze-medal winners Japan after the match. And for the players, this was a true Olympic moment. Yes, their medal-stand celebrations might have been a bit jarring to the American eye, but it was also hard not to share at least a little in the joy of their achievement. 

The greater issue is what this heralds for Rio 2016.

On one hand, it leaves no doubt that the Brazilians are going to have a lot of fun. As the fans were waiting for the medal ceremony, a drum emerged from somewhere (how did that get through security?) and the crowd erupted into chants and songs brimming with national pride. 

But was there really ever any doubt that Rio would be a party? This is Rio, after all. 

It also suggests that the Brazilian athletes will get more than a polite welcome. And at sports close to Brazilians' hearts, the the crowd noise might be heard in Buenos Aires. "They support the sport of volleyball to a level not seen in the rest of the world, and I respect that," said American setter Lindsey Berg

Certainly, the crowd's passion elevated the Brazilians Saturday as the Americans came unglued. What was the most technically proficient team in the women's game at times looked as sloppy as high schoolers, as Brazil, seen as inconsistent and on a downward slope before the tournament began, gradually found their old samba swagger. By the fourth set, the US resembled nothing so much as a bug on the Brazilian windshield.

Athletes competing against Brazil in 2016, be warned.  

That atmosphere can create a drama of its own – a team going into a lion's den and refusing to be cowed. The triumph of standing in a cauldron of sound all willing you to fail, and still stubbornly finding that spot of sublime achievement. 

But is that the Olympics?

In four years, we may find out.

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