Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Zika Cheer

Cheers have been a staple at events for years. As any sports fan knows, cheers are ways to show support – or derision – for a team or player and can be as witty as they are loud. For many sports, cheers provide a sound track to the game and function as a way for spectators to connect with players, coaches and even referees. While cheers are in many senses ubiquitous, in recent years, certain cheers have become synonymous with certain sports in certain locations.

The 2010 World Cup in South Africa introduced the world to the sound of the vuvuzela, a South African instrument that many came to regard as an essential part of the games. Similarly, what started out as a Spanish soccer leagues chant, “Ole, Ole, Ole”, has now been adopted by soccer fans across the world and has spread to other sports as well. What these sounds have in common is their positive connotations with the culture that generates them.

During this year's Rio Olympic games a different type of chant emerged, one that was not born of positive national pride but rather to mock the negativity that had been directed at Brazil as an Olympic host.

In the weeks and months leading up to the Rio games there was increased global concern after the Zika virus was found in Brazil. Much of this concern centered on the susceptibility of Olympic athletes and those attending the games to the virus and preventative measures were taken, including some national delegations issuing insect repellent to their athletes. The majority of athletes chose to take the potential threat for what it was – potential – and to take measures to be safe while at the same time not exaggerating the matter or being overly critical of the host nation.

Other athletes, however, were not as tactful. In one notable example, Hope Solo, goal tender for the US women’s soccer team, took to Twitter donning a scarf around her face, a facemask used in beekeeping, and holding a large bottle of insect repellent, with the caption “Not sharing this!!! Get your own! #zikaproof #RoadtoRio.” On the same day, she tweeted a photo of various forms of insect repellent cans and tools with the caption “If anyone in the village forgets to pack repellent, come and see me… #DeptOfDefense #zikaproof.”

Many Brazilians were insulted by these tweets and there was criticism of Solo before the games started. What is of note is the way that the Brazilian crowd called her to account for her statements – during the first game the United States women’s soccer team played, the crowd began to chant “Zika” when Solo handled the ball.

In the next US women’s soccer match the crowd again used the Zika cheer when Solo was on the field. From that point on, the Zika cheer became a fixture at US women’s soccer matches. And then the Zika cheer spread to other venues and sports, even when the competitions involved had nothing to do with Solo. While some of the Zika cheers were directed at other US athletes others were not. From soccer stadiums deep in the city to the open-air beach volleyball stadium on Copacabana beach, the Zika cheer became synonymous with the Rio games and took on a new meaning of national pride as well as mocking.

Ironically – and mercifully – the Zika cheer had a far greater presence and impact at the Rio games than the Zika virus itself. As the crowds have dissipated and the games are becoming a memory, the Zika cheer is something that stands out for the irony with which it was used. In this way, the Zika cheer represents a method of reclaiming pride in the face of criticism and negativity. The Zika cheer might not showcase a pre-existing sound that is synonymous with Rio in the same way that the vuvuzela was synonymous with South Africa. It might not be a stirring call to action such as “Ole, Ole, Ole.” It is, however, a way of showcasing the power of citizens in Rio and their ability to overcome negativity through a very public demonstration of societal power and pride.

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