Wed. Oct 20th, 2021

Updates on the Tokyo Olympics

Last Monday night, there was a moment during a fierce Olympic handball heat when a lone volunteer dropped her clipboard near the fire exit. The clatter was, by a margin, the most audible thing in the Yoyogi National Gymnasium.

A while later, the short sound of the clipboard is ended by the squeaky, unnoticeable soles, the low bark of an angry coach and the ball bouncing from one resin-filled palm to the other. These were all the usual sounds of intense handball competition, but ridiculously amplified by the absence of a live audience and the acoustics of Kenzo Tange’s architectural masterpiece.

Although these games are ultimately remembered, sports specialists have a unique case study, which can come close to a control experiment on the way live audiences affect athletes, the fierce competition and the resonance of it all for those who watch TV.

It is clear that the Olympic Games are not alone in this. For almost 18 months, the sports world has adapted with various preliminary measures to lockouts and other restrictions against Covid. Cardboard audiences, roaring sound effects and other breaths were set up to fill the void.

The big difference, explain athletes and coaches interviewed by the Financial Times during the first week of the Games, is that the audiences of the Olympics have always been unique in their scope, passion and diversity. The organizers did not dare to artificially repeat or replace this power, so that teams could wrestle with the effect and test on the largest stage the theory that audiences have a measurable impact on performance.

The first full week of the Tokyo 2020 Games produced many versions of the Yoyogi Gym phenomenon across the various facilities and disciplines – the flushing, rumbling, rumbling, mumbling conversations and other horrific details of international sport at its highest level that are disobedient and unanswered echoes seats and stands.

Japanese organizers decided at the last possible moment to hold the event without a live audience – the first modern Olympic Games. The now fast rising Covid-19 infection rates in Tokyo much of the initial objection to the call faded. But the athletes have not yet given a definitive answer as to whether the crowd is without goodness. Records were broken, as with all Olympics, but the general remark was that something visceral, even gladiatorial, had been removed from the proceedings. Among male and female beach volleyball players, where the emptiness of the arena has given the cicadas a major role in the soundtrack, the division of opinion is striking. Ágatha Bednarczuk, a Brazilian medalist in 2016, comes out of winning a contest last week and says the silence helped her focus.

The American men’s team describes the same environment as an atmospheric void that made it difficult to compete. “We played for the time being, there was no energy, it was a bit flat,” said Nick Lucena, before his teammate Phil Dalhausser added that “this whole Olympics was a bit unfortunate”.

Some athletes – especially those who made noise with false crowds in preparation before discovering that spectators are banned – call the silence a significant source of tension.

In some places there is only an ominous silence. In others, coaches and accredited support staff try to fill the void with resounding (and often quite annoying) applause, while in others the organizers still blow high-energy music between matches to work up non-crowds. At the box, a delegation from Uzbekistan managed to get a drum to the security and enter the gallery of the Kokugikan Stadium, with a pleasantly noisy – and almost normalizing – effect. Now that the track and field events are underway, questions about the impact of it all will be answered by the empty seats of Tokyo’s largest and most unpopular venue.

If we are in fact looking at a giant unintended experiment, the most important revelation may be a reappraisal of the practical meaning of home advantage. Japan, after an extraordinary flood of gold medals in the first week, remains above the US and only gives up top spot in the table Friday to China. It did so with the same small performances in the stands as other countries, and in many cases the delegations were much quieter than other contingents. “Maybe because these are Japanese venues, it’s easier for the athletes to imagine that they’re full of home fans,” a member of the Japanese table tennis coaching staff shrugged.

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