Olympic Athletes Struggle With Arenas Devoid of Cheering Fans
(Bloomberg) -- Of all the oddities that come with holding the Olympic Games in the midst of a pandemic, having to compete in arenas and stadiums completely lacking in shouting fans has perhaps been the hardest thing for athletes to adjust to.
Olympians now compete in near silence, punctuated by beat-heavy soundtracks and light shows that were orchestrated to hype up audiences. The quiet is particularly overwhelming in cavernous stadiums designed to seat tens of thousands, though in events such judo teammates try to make up for the absence of fans. Some athletes, such as road cyclists and marathon runners, can still experience the atmosphere of roadside spectators rooting for them as they compete. Others try to catch an encouraging wave from fans as they get bussed to and from events.
“I’m just trying to give our guys and myself a lot of energy to get through it,” said U.S. volleyball player Matt Anderson, who was starting to lose his voice after cheering his teammates throughout their match against Tunisia on Wednesday. In the stands, only the U.S. women’s team was there to encourage them.
Olympic organizers made a last-minute decision to ban domestic spectators, after the Japanese government declared a state of emergency for Tokyo due to rising Covid-19 infections. Foreign spectators had already been ruled out in March, with Japan’s borders remaining mostly closed.
For weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz, who won the first ever gold medal for the Philippines, that meant marking her achievement without her loved ones.
“I would’ve wanted that my mom is there, my friends are there, the crowds are there, that would’ve been a more beautiful moment -- I already visualized and imagined that,” Diaz told reporters Thursday in Manila. “But we have to accept that this is our reality now.”
The ban on spectators is part of a broader suite of strict anti-pandemic measures implemented by the games’ organizers, which also confines athletes to the Olympic Village, except to go to competitions and training. Other requirements include regular temperature-taking and Covid testing, with infected athletes immediately sent to quarantine and barred from competing.
While those hygiene measures now feel commonplace for the most part more than a year into the pandemic, the near-silence in the stands during a momentous event like the Olympics is still unsettling for many.
“There’s quite literally no fanfare,” said U.S. soccer player Megan Rapinoe. “There’s signage, you got the lanyard and you have the things that make it feel like an Olympics, but it’s definitely a little bit different.”
In a sport like diving, the sound from the audience is also an important gauge of how the athletes performed.
“When you come up you hear them. That’s where it is tough not having spectators because it does give you that adrenaline kick,” said diver Delaney Schnell, who won the first-ever U.S. medal in the women’s 10-meter synchronized diving event.
For some athletes, the inability to travel with family to the games and the absence of fans meant the dismantling of important support networks that proved too much to bear. Australian basketball player Liz Cambage, for example, cited the impact of those factors on her mental health for her decision to pull out of the games.
The effectiveness of the anti-pandemic measures will be closely watched in the coming days, as the number of Olympics-linked cases inches higher amid a record number of new infections in Tokyo and neighboring prefectures on consecutive days this week. The number of new cases in Tokyo hit 3,865 on Thursday, and cases nationwide are set to top 10,000 for the first time.
So far, fewer than 30 Olympic athletes have tested positive in Japan. International Olympic Committee spokesman Mark Adams said the athletes are “living in a different parallel world” due to the stringency of the testing and lockdown measures.
Hong Kong fencer Cheung Siu Lun -- who also spoke with a raspy voice from cheering on his teammates -- commended the lengths the organizers have gone to keep athletes safe. When he embarked on his journey to Tokyo, he said, he felt like the Olympic Village was “one of the most dangerous places in the world” as it meant living in close quarters with people from so many different countries. Now, he barely thinks about Covid or pays attention to case numbers.
Still, some competitors have felt the sting of the Covid rules much more than others, particularly the South African soccer team, after two players and a support staff member became the first to test positive inside the Village. The team was eliminated after losing all three of its pool-play matches.
“The one thing that I think one has to mention is the issue of stigmatization,” said team coach David Notoane. “When people come across us, you see people running away. And I think that’s a little bit disrespectful.”
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