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Why Rio 2016 is on track to become the least sporting Olympic Games ever

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Tom Fordy
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There are still five days left of the Rio games, and already we’ve had some incredible sporting moments.

Simone Biles’ stunning display in just about everything. Michael Phelps’ big grumpy game-face before the 200m butterfly. Laura Trott cycling her way to becoming Great Britain’s most successful female Olympian. And – of course – Usain Bolt’s crafty smiling for the camera as he hurtled towards another 100m final.

But unfortunately these games are in danger of being remembered for something much less inspiring: booing and dreadful sportsmanship from the Rio crowds. In fact, these games are on a fast track to being the least sporting Olympics ever…

On Tuesday night, French pole-vaulter Renaud Lavillenie was booed on the podium as he received his silver medal. It was the second time he’d been booed in 24hrs, reducing the man to tears as he tried to celebrate his achievement. And this was just the latest example.

Gymnasts have been cheered for mistakes. Germany’s Dustin Brown was loudly taunted for inuring his ankle. Justin Gatlin was booed when he walked out onto the track. The Juan Martin del Potro vs Rafael Nadal tennis semi-final almost erupted into a rumble in the stands, and even the del Potro’s final against eventual victor Andy Murray was tainted by the behavior of boisterous Argentines, one of which was ejected from the stadium for trying to put Murray off a shot by shouting.

After his first round of boos during the men’s pole vault final, Lavillenie compared his plight to that of Jesse Owens, the black sprinter who overcame the prejudices of the Nazis to win four golds at the Berlin games:

“In 1936 the crowd was against Jesse Owens," he said. "We've not seen this since. We have to deal with it."

Admittedly it was a poorly judged remark, for which he quickly apologised, tweeting: “Yes, sorry for the bad comparison I made. It was a hot reaction and I realize it was wrong. Sorry to everyone.”

Regardless, fans should know better. Just put yourself in the place of such an athlete. After working tirelessly for four years, you step out onto the world stage for your big moment and get a verbal hammering – for nothing more than trying to compete and doing your country proud.

IMC President Thomas Bach called the crowd’s poor form, “shocking behavior” and “unacceptable at the Olympics”.

We Brits know what the incredible Olympic spirit means, of course. There’s barely a man, woman or child across the land who doesn’t go a misty eyed at the mere mention of London 2012. We’re all for home advantage – hell, if not for the majority of the Olympic Stadium raising their voices when it mattered in 2012, we might not have had the successes we did - but done in the right way. It was stirring stuff back then, which makes it all the more of a shame we've taken a backwards step.

So come on, Rio, where’s your Olympic spirit gone? Where’s the happy-go-lucky samba-thon we were promised? Isn’t this meant to be a celebration of unity, integrity, and all-round fair play? A carnival of contentment? The 'cool' Olympics? Or has the unbreakable Olympic spirit actually broken?

The integrity of the games has been sullied by athletes many times, of course. Which could be part of it: Justin Gatlin, for instance, has been twice banned for doping, while controversy surrounding the Russian team had marred the games before they’d even got out of the starting blocks.

Sporting or not, you can understand how these athletes might have received a negative reaction. 

But what of the others who have faced harsh, unprovoked, merciless reactions from crowds? The pole vaulters? The gymnasts? The ball boys?

Some say it’s simply the Brazilians, who have very little experience of Olympic events and whose conduct is dictated by the rowdy conventions of football. But as the clashes between fans proves, they’re not the only ones at it.

You could also argue that it’s just age-old international tensions (it does seem to get worse when Brazil fans face off against Argentina fans), intensified by the beer, heat, and excitement. Or maybe it’s turned into a gold medal-worthy contest of tit-for-tat, seeing who can boo the other’s country the loudest.

Whatever the reason, it’s left a mark on the Rio games – one that we can only hope more athletic brilliance overshadows. And if these do go down in history as the least sporting games ever, let’s also hope it isn’t repeated.

We might expect it – encourage it, even – at other sporting events. But the Olympics is the standard bearer for sporting excellence. And that’s got to be something worth cheering for – both on the track and in the stands.

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Tom Fordy

Tom Fordy is a London-based writer. He is former men's magazine editor and is now works as a lifestyle and entertainment journalist and opinionated beard for hire. His interests include the great literary works of the 20th century, New Wave European cinema and the career of Hulk Hogan. Follow Tom on Twitter: @TheTomFordy

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