Case of US versus them

Pat Butcher explains how these became the Games of cheer and loathing
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The Independent Online
The Olympics may be open to all, but that is not to say everyone is welcome. When the opponent to the local boxer Roshii Wells was announced - the Iranian middleweight Sefid Mollal - the 10,000 crowd in the Alexander Memorial Coliseum greeted him with vehement booing. Unsurprisingly, he lost heavily.

Some of the crowds at other venues have been so chauvinistic that even the United States print media is getting embarrassed at what, basically, they have helped provoke, taking their lead from television's focus on home performers.

It has not gone unremarked by some of the older British media members here that the chants of, "USA, USA" ringing around the crowds have a disturbing similarity to the "Sieg Heil" that echoed around the 1936 Olympic stadium in Berlin.

But here it is more perhaps from naivety than any urge to insult, apart from obvious "enemies" like the Iranians and Cubans. And, even then, it seems to be restricted to particular sports, like boxing. In contrast, the crowds at gymnastics - mostly young girls and parents - seemed genuinely appreciative of all good performances, although anything from a US competitor raised the decibel volume to stress levels.

Sometimes, the stadium commentators have been over zealous. It has been a particular problem in Centennial Stadium. Athletics is a little-regarded sport here. As one cynical local journalist said when 80,000 turned up for the first morning of qualifying heats: "That's only because they thought they were watching finals."

As a result, presentation has trodden a fine line between "selling" the sport on the back of US successes and being even-handed. When there has not been a US athlete in an event there has been, by and large, indifference from the crowd. In contrast, ear-splitting yells greet any American success, even the minor achievement of clearing an opening height in the high jump, or leading a qualifying race for a few metres.

The US media itself went in the dock as far as everyone else was concerned in the Michelle Smith case. The Irish swimmer, who ended up with three golds and a bronze, was virtually put on trial for suspected drugs use by American press and TV, eager to question her surge to greatness at the late age of 26. The impression given was that Smith was spoiling their party.

The general jingoism tends to send the unbiased observer into the opposing camp. So it was a delight to witness the denouement of the men's volleyball final. After a fine, closely competitive game, marred only by outrageous crowd backing for Team USA, the Cuban men's squad won in overtime, and were rewarded with complete silence.