As the Australian archery team entered its shoot-off against Chinese Taipei last week, the tension inside Koto City’s Yumenoshima Park was palpable. “What a moment in time,” the announcer exclaimed over the public address system.
But all of the atmosphere came from the sound of Japanese cicadas, occasional licks of electronic dance music and a fake heartbeat pumped in over the speakers. What the archers didn’t hear was fans. The lone cheers from the three empty grandstands came from 10 members of the Chinese Taipei entourage.
In the near-silence, the Australian archers felt right at home. To athletes in lower-profile sports, competing without fans is simply known as competing.
“There’s not too many events I can recall that have ever had a grandstand,” said veteran Australian archer David Barnes. “We’ll put it that way.”
These Olympic Games are being held without spectators, a last-minute decision made by organizers amid a local state of emergency due to the Covid-19 pandemic. For some Olympians, that’s nothing like the jam-packed mobs they’re accustomed to. They play in sports where they can earn millions of dollars and feed off the energy from deafening crowds.
Except the reality for the hundreds of Olympic athletes who most people only pay attention to once every four years—or in this case, five—is that any stands they encounter tend to be deserted stands. They crisscross the globe to compete, they’re the best in the world at what they do, and they feel like an unprecedented Olympics has plenty of precedent for them.
“I was going to say I’ve never competed in an empty stadium,” said Jonathan Horton, an Olympic double-medalist in 2008. “But I did men’s gymnastics for a living. I competed in a lot of empty stadiums.”
As many parts of the world inch their way out of the global pandemic, fans have returned to stadiums by the thousands. And plenty of Olympians in Tokyo had recently become reacquainted with the roar of a crowd. Spanish soccer players, for instance, played in front of 60,000 people in London earlier this month. Golfers and tennis players are practically back to normal at their respective majors. Even members of the Japanese baseball team were playing in front of crowds in Nippon Professional Baseball before the Olympics kicked off. For athletes in big-ticket sports, the sound of a return to silence has been jarring.
“It sucks, there’s no nice way of putting it,” said golfer Collin Morikawa who just this month won the British Open in front of 32,000 fans a day in Sandwich, England. “People in Japan love golf, and I know if spectators were allowed there’d be a massive show-out of people.”
But sports like archery aren’t exactly the stuff of prime time television and ticket scalpers in most parts of the world. It isn’t especially hard to understand why. It consists of athletes doing the exact same thing, shooting a bow at a stationary target, over and over again. The targets are 70 meters away and the difference between gold medals and finishing last are measured in fractions of an inch—margins so small they’re nearly impossible to see from the stands with the naked eye.
Mary Tucker, an American silver medalist in air rifle shooting, knows this phenomenon too well. She won three medals at the world championships this year. She won two NCAA championships at the University of Kentucky. And nearly the same number of spectators showed up to watch those as were allowed into the Asaka Shooting Range during her first Olympics.
“It didn’t feel that much different,” Tucker said. “Shooting doesn’t get a whole lot of viewers, unfortunately.”
Tucker called it unfortunate. Others viewed the situation in a different light. They dreaded the possibility of competing in front of thousands after a lifetime of staring out at nothing.
Jack Woolley’s parents were supposed to fly to Tokyo to watch the Irishman take the mat in taekwondo. Even just two parents was too much for Wooley. They have come to see him fight twice since he was 12, he said.
“I’m absolutely delighted they are not here,” he said. “When they come, they kind of distract me because I can hear their voice and I’m like ‘Jesus, that’s weird.’”
“I look up to the stands and I’m like ‘don’t do anything embarrassing,” he added.
This is something perhaps felt most acutely by athletes from the Olympics host country. The Games have put an extraordinary spotlight on Japanese athletes, from the judo stars lighting up the Nippon Budokan, to golfer Hideki Matsuyama, and the national baseball team. After tennis star Naomi Osaka, who lit the cauldron at the Opening Ceremony, lost in the third round she conceded, “I definitely feel like there was a lot of pressure for this.”
Her compatriot Takaharu Furukawa, who won a bronze medal in archery, agreed that “something doesn’t feel right with this Olympics” and that he missed the spectators. But he also admitted that he may not have a medal around his neck if an ebullient mass of his countrymen had been allowed in.
“If there were a full stadium,” he said, “I would be more nervous and make a mistake.”
Even for those athletes who have become internationally famous for achievements away from the field of play, the echoes of a silent venue have seemed familiar. Tongan taekwondoka Pita Taufatofua, known for firing up entire stadiums by walking into Olympic Opening Ceremonies shirtless and slathered in coconut oil, was right at home during his first-round defeat here.
Taekwondo doesn’t enjoy a huge following in the South Pacific—and Taufatofua doesn’t draw many crowds with a shirt on.
“Honestly,” he said, “it didn’t feel much different to me.”
—Ben Cohen contributed to this article.
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