HONG KONG: From spitting and booing to full-scale riots, Chinese fans loom as a potential public relations disaster for the Beijing Olympics.
Organisers have spent millions of dollars on “civilising” their notoriously unruly spectators, fearing a repeat of rowdy scenes that regularly mar football and basketball matches here.
“You cannot deny it – the difficult area in staging a civilised Olympics rests in the quality of the people,” senior Games organiser Zhang Faqiang told state media.
Leaving nothing to chance, officials have organised lessons in cheering, queuing and sportsmanship for home spectators, many of whom have little experience of such events.
But concern remains over possible flare-ups which would embarrass the hosts in front of a worldwide audience running into billions.
In June, angry fans turned on the national football team during their 1-0 defeat to Qatar, booing, hurling bottles and fighting in the latest of a series of unseemly incidents.
Back in 2004, hundreds of incensed supporters blockaded the Japanese team hotel in Beijing after their Asian Cup final victory over China, creating unwelcome headlines abroad.
Similar trouble erupted during this year’s East Asian Cup when the crowd jeered and threw rubbish at the Japanese team, who were also abused during the 2007 Women’s World Cup in China.
The chequered history prompted Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda to urge Chinese fans, often resentful over Japan’s invasion of the 1930s and 1940s, not to boo Olympic athletes from his country.
“Many Chinese people may cheer only for Chinese athletes. That would be all right,” Fukuda said in May, according to Japanese media.
“But if they criticise opponent nations and do something like booing against them, it will provoke antipathy among people of these nations.”
Crowd behaviour has even caused concern among Chinese Olympians, particularly after unsporting scenes at the ‘Bird’s Nest’ Olympic Stadium.
At an athletics event in May, fans ignored other competitors to focus almost exclusively on Liu Xiang, leaving the arena in droves after the star hurdler’s race was over.
“Some of them went to the stadium to watch Liu and some to see the stadium itself. But after Liu Xiang completed his performance a lot of them just left the stadium,” said table tennis legend Deng Yaping.
“Sometimes we Chinese pay disproportionate attention toward the gold-medal winners,” she added. “The essence of sports spirit deserves more respect.”
While China will use a massive security presence to keep violence in check, enforcing notions of sportsmanship and fair play is not so easy.
In a country with limited sporting culture, some spectators have little knowledge of what is and isn’t acceptable at major events.
Chinese fans regularly irritate players at the country’s growing number of top golf tournaments by talking loudly and snapping pictures during shots.
Visiting snooker players have similarly been startled by camera flashes, mobile ring-tones and even loud snoring coming from Chinese galleries.
“It was a circus,” complained one player after an event in Beijing.
In 2005, China’s basketball match against Puerto Rico erupted into chaos when fans hurled plastic bottles and yoghurt after a fight on-court, echoing scenes repeated regularly in the domestic league.
The concern is such that specialised coaches have been running daily courses for firms here teaching workers about behaviour during the Games, including how and when to cheer.
“We win, we cheer; you win, we boo – that’s not right,” said Zhai Yue, a veteran sports journalist, at one of the sessions.
Authorities have also been striving to improve public manners with a series of initiatives such as “Queuing Day,” “Seat-Giving Day” on public transport and anti-spitting and littering campaigns.
Channel News Asia