Russian fans love watching biathlon, but they need to learn when it's ok to cheer. (Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

Russian fans love watching biathlon, but they need to learn when it’s ok to cheer. (Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

You can yell anything you want to yell at a baseball game. At a golf tournament, you can get thrown out of the gallery for clearing your throat at the top of someone’s backswing. The unwritten rules for crowds at biathlon competitions are more complicated, and Russian spectators aren’t exactly sure they like them. Sam Dolnick has been covering the Olympics for the New York Times. He joined Bill from Sochi to explain.

BL: Let’s start with what you characterize as an anomaly. How does the behavior of Russians watching the biathlon differ from that of fans from elsewhere?

SD: If there’s one code among biathlon fans in Norway and Sweden and countries where the biathlon is hugely popular, it’s this: you do not cheer when a foreigner misses a shot. That’s just the worst kind of sportsmanship. That’s the worst form. That message hasn’t quite made its way to Russia, it turns out. So you’ll see fans heartily, lustfully cheering every foreigner’s miss — especially the best foreigners who miss rarely. When they do miss Russians will be honking, and hollering, and cheering like mad.

BL: Are you aware of any biathletes who’ve been rattled by this behavior?

SD: You know I’ve talked to a bunch of them, but they say that they’ve certainly noticed it, but they are so locked in to their performance that they claim it hasn’t gotten to them. Russia every year hosts a biathlon world cup out in Siberia and the stadium there is notorious for being the most unfriendly stadium in the world.

BL: I would think it might be a little risky to taunt athletes who are armed.

SD: Yes, they are wielding live rifles. That’s a good point.

BL: Russian fans have also been criticized for not understanding what one Swiss athlete has called “the fairness of curling.” Somehow it seems especially uncouth to taunt a curler.

SD: Yes, who would have thought these kinds of sports — curling has their own code — but they very much do and they are respected everywhere around the world. But the Russian fans are a particular kind.

BL: Some Russian officials have said they think hosting the Olympics will help Russian fans to begin to understand the etiquette fans elsewhere already understand. Have you seen any evidence of that?

SD: Yes, and I should say for the most part Russian fans have been really welcoming of foreigners, of the media, of everybody. They’re really proud of these games which have gone off for the most part really well. And so there has been kind of this generosity of spirit. Though once competition heats up fans tend to return to their most natural state which is rooting like mad for the home team.

BL: Regarding that world cup biathlon venue in Russia that athletes have characterized as the very worst one to visit, will that change as a result of the Olympics or is that still going to be a difficult place for foreign athletes?

SD: Yeah, it’s a good question. There are a lot of Siberian fans who have made it here, so biathlon folks hope that that will make its way back to Siberia. Siberian officials have gone on a charm offensive and education campaign. They’ve enlisted stadium announcers to remind the crowd of the right way to act. Television announcers begins lots of matches by explaining how foreigners behave and encouraging fans to behave the same way. So biathlon officials say that it’s gotten much better in Siberia than it was even five years ago, and so they hope things are headed in the right direction.