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November 24, 2014

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Cheer for everyone? The Russians are still learning

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Doug Mills/The New York TImes

Fans waving a Russian flag cheer during the women’s biathlon at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia, Feb. 9, 2014.

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — From their perch in the bleachers high above the shooting range, biathlon fans generally follow two unspoken rules: Stay quiet when a biathlete is shooting at the target and do not cheer when a competitor from another country misses.

For biathlon fans (most of whom reside in the Nordic countries), these customs more or less hold true everywhere. Everywhere, that is, except Russia.

As the world’s biathletes arrived here for the Winter Olympics, they had to steel themselves for a potentially frosty reception. Many of them knew Russia only through the biathlon competitions regularly held in Khanty-Mansiysk, an oil town in Siberia, where the crowds have long been as welcoming as a Siberian winter.

“In Siberia, they weren’t so nice,” said Max Cobb, a senior official with the International Biathlon Union. “They were a little,” he paused, searching for a way to put it delicately, “they were not so friendly to the athletes.”

Every sport has its own expectations for fan behavior, and every country can provide its own twist. Just as rowdy fans at the Phoenix Open have turned golf etiquette on its head, Russia has presented biathlon athletes and officials with a new breed of spectator.

In biathlon stadiums in countries like Norway and Germany, fans tend to be respectful and orderly - picture Wimbledon with rifles, the Masters with skis. By those refined standards, Russian crowds are notoriously loud, according to biathlon coaches, athletes and broadcasters.

“The Russian mentality is a bit different,” said Wolfgang Pichler, a German who coaches the Russian women’s team.

They are well known for hollering across the shooting gallery at crucial moments and taunting foreigners who miss their targets, biathlon decorum be damned. A Siberian cheer sounds something like a Bronx cheer with a Russian accent.

“They were not booing but making some strange noises,” said Ivor Lehotan, a senior international biathlon official. “They have funny things in the mouth; they made noise.”

This custom has posed a problem for Olympics officials responsible for the biathlon, an event that combines cross-country skiing with sharpshooting. After all, a stadium of Russians shouting what amounts to, “In your face, foreigner,” doesn’t exactly convey sunny feelings of international brotherhood.

To counter that, Russian organizers have spent years working to make sure that biathlon fans do not bring Siberia to Sochi. They enlisted the Russian media to write articles about proper fan reactions. They asked stadium announcers to remind the crowds to be fair.

Dmitry Guberniev, the biathlon commentator for Russia’s state broadcasting channel, played a key role in shaping the country’s biathlon culture. By all accounts, fan behavior has improved in recent years.

“I just told the fans, let’s show our honored foreign guests that we are a normal country and we can greet foreign guests in a proper way,” he said. “We have clever spectators, and everyone understood everything immediately.”

So far, after 12 days of the biathlon competition, the outreach efforts seem to be paying off, although the international mix of the Olympic crowd is not necessarily the best sample group.

Russians here have been enthusiastic, even cheering loudly for Ole Einar Bjorndalen of Norway, a legend in the biathlon world. They have generally avoided the boorish behavior organizers feared (although there were scattered cheers when Emil Hegle Svendsen, another Norwegian star, missed a shot during a recent competition).

During a recent event, Alexander Dubynin of Listvyanka, in Siberia, sat in the stands with his wife, Lyudmila, their faces painted with Russian flags. They wore red Russian team jackets and waved a Russian flag.

“We’re trying to treat all athletes from all teams equally,” he said. “Sport should be the spirit of friendship. But when it comes to Russia, we support them the most, naturally.”

Indeed, the crowds have been cheering lustily for every Russian athlete but have not entirely adopted the international custom of cheering for all the competitors, to the dismay of some.

“In Norway you cheer for everyone who makes it,” said Per Arne Botnan, head coach of the Norwegian biathlon team, which is, by nearly all measures, the world’s strongest.

Russian fans, Botnan said, are different. As practice shots rang out behind him, you could practically see the disdain steaming in the air.

“In Norwegian culture, it’s unsportsmanlike to cheer if someone misses,” he said.

At a recent race, the stadium announcer implored the crowd to applaud Martin Fourcade of France as he flew past the finish line to win his second gold medal of the games. You could have heard a pin drop.

But at least there were hardly any taunts.

“Slowly, slowly, we are coming to the situation where there is no booing or this not-correct attitude,” said Lehotan, the international biathlon official.

Biathlon is hardly the only sport to struggle with fan behavior, and Russia is far from the only country with fans that sometimes behave badly. (Just about any NFL stadium would scream the parkas off a Siberian biathlon crowd.) But athletes in several Olympic sports have criticized the host country’s fans.

A French ice dancer, Pernelle Carron, said Monday that the audience was “quite unpleasant, maybe even disrespectful, since they’re cheering only for the Russians it seems, which is sad.”

Mirjam Ott of the Swiss curling team objected to Russian fans’ tendency to root against other countries.

“It’s sad when the people boo when the opponents of Russia are playing,” Ott said. “That’s not the fairness of curling, but it’s Russia and they don’t know curling that well, so we have to accept that.”

Over in the biathlon world, Russian officials say they believe that the Olympics will help Russian fans pick up international etiquette.

“It’s true, Russian fans did not quite react to the foreign athletes ethically,” said Maria Baydina, an official with the Russian biathlon federation. “But now, we have no problem.”

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