Five-Ring Circus

How “Zika-Proof” Hope Solo Became the Biggest Villain of the Rio Olympics

Though Russian swimmer and “drug cheat” Yulia Efimova has been booed a bit at Rio’s Olympic Aquatics Stadium, there’s only one athlete in Brazil who has embarked on a getting-booed tour of the entire country: U.S. soccer star Hope Solo.*

The 35-year-old American goalkeeper became the villain of the Rio Games on July 21, when she tweeted a pair of photos with the hashtag #zikaproof.

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In an interview with the Associated Press published on Aug. 1, Solo explained that these tweets were the product of rigorous research. “I actually spoke to three different infectious disease doctors and specialists,” she said. “I spoke to them on the phone with my husband as well, and we got to a point where we asked enough questions. We prepared ourselves as best as possible and we got to a level of being as comfortable as we possibly can be.” She added, “I’m at a point in my life that I just want to be safe.”

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Solo’s “I just want to be safe” reads as “other people are reckless,” which is both judgmental and inaccurate. As Marc Siegel wrote in Slate back in May, Zika is not a grave danger. It has a “low risk of infection when compared with other diseases” and “for most people, Zika remains a very mild flulike infection with 80 percent of those infected having no symptoms at all.” Siegel acknowledges it makes sense to limit travel for pregnant women, but emphasizes that we “must be governed by our analysis of the data, not by our fear of unlikely outcomes.” That data shows that in Brazil, the Zika epidemic is getting better, not worse. According to the Wall Street Journal, new cases are in sharp decline now that the Brazilian winter has arrived, further lowering the risk of infection.

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It’s possible Solo’s tweets were made in jest—who doesn’t love a funny hat? It’s certain Brazilian fans were not amused. Solo was jeered throughout the United States’ opening game against New Zealand on Aug. 3, at the Mineirão stadium in Belo Horizonte. Every time the U.S. goalkeeper touched the ball, the fans yelled Zeeee-KAAAAA. The rhythm and timing of the jeer are identical to the homophobic puto chant that’s yelled at soccer games throughout Central and South America. This new Zika version of the chant is not at all clever, but it does serve as a clear and forceful response: We are more than a faraway country with a scary-seeming virus.

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In the New Zealand game, the chants got increasingly loud as the U.S. closed out its 2–0 victory. The fans were more organized three days later at the United States’ second game, which took place three days later at Mineirão. Less than two minutes into the game against France, Solo touched the ball for the first time. The boos started to build and just as she kicked the ball, the crowd exploded: Zeeee-KAAAAA! The fans kept it up throughout the entire game. In Tuesday night’s final group stage game against Colombia at Amazonia Arena in Manaus, Solo didn’t touch the ball until the 25th minute. The second she did, the crowed launched into boos and chants. When the U.S. plays Sweden in the quarterfinals on Friday in Brasilia, the chants will undoubtedly pick up where they left off.

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Solo claimed that she didn’t get the point of all that shouting. After the New Zealand game, the Associated Press reported that “the veteran goalkeeper said she didn’t realize during the game that the fans were chanting ‘Zika,’ and thought they were only yelling a common slur [presumably puto] that local clubs sometimes use against goalkeepers at goal kicks.”

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“I’m glad the fans had fun,” Solo said on Aug. 4. “And if they had fun at my expense, more power to them.”

If Solo says Brazilian fans are trying to “have fun,” she’s as clueless about the country’s state of mind as she is about infectious diseases. Overblown Zika concerns from rich and famous outsiders are indulgent and unproductive. When they’re juxtaposed with the very real concerns of people who actually live in Rio, who might not be able to afford mosquito nets and jugs of bug spray and actually have to deal with Zika in their everyday lives, Solo’s flip remarks sound that much worse.

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Before arriving in Brazil, Solo had tried to walk back social media posts (sort of) by blaming the U.S. media for filling her head with Zika fears. “It’s a little bit unfortunate because I think the American media has been really tough on people of Brazil,” Solo said in the same story where she mentioned talking to all those infectious disease doctors. “I feel a little bit bad because when you come here you learn for yourself. I think that we’ve been very hard on the local people.” She continued, “I never would want to offend the host country. In fact, I’m cheering for Team USA, but besides Team USA, I’m going to be cheering for the host country.” Go Brazil!

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It’s worth noting that a number of Olympic athletes, including basketball player Pau Gasol and golfer Rory McIlroy, have made similarly ill-informed comments about Zika’s perceived dangers. The difference is that McIlroy, along with many others, skipped the games.* Solo said ignorant things, then got on a plane to Rio, putting herself in a highly boo-able position.

This isn’t the first time Solo’s words (among many other things) have gotten her in trouble. During the 2007 World Cup, she was benched in favor of Briana Scurry, then trashed her fellow goalie after the U.S. lost.* Five years later, Solo took to Twitter during the London Games to berate commentator and former U.S. player Brandi Chastain for her allegedly harsh analysis of Team USA.

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We have enough evidence at this point to say that Hope Solo has a tendency to make brash and ill-informed statements, and her thoughts about Zika and Brazil have been especially arrogant and incoherent. The message coming from fans all across Brazil has been a lot clearer: You don’t understand us. Brazil exists beyond the Olympics.

*Correction, Aug. 12, 2016: This post originally misstated that Pau Gasol skipped the 2016 Olympics. He did not. It also misspelled Briana Scurry’s first name.

*Correction, Aug. 12, 2016: Due to an editing error, this post originally misstated the location of the swimming competitions at the Rio Olympics. They are at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium, not the Maria Lenk Aquatics Centre.

See more of Slate’s Olympics coverage.

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