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No fans in stands adds to mental pressure facing Olympians in Tokyo

Due to a spike in coronavirus infections, fans will not be permitted in the stands during the Tokyo Games. This will only add to the pressure that every Olympic athlete faces.

A USA fan cheers during a men’s volleyball match in Rio in 2016.
A USA fan cheers during a men’s volleyball match in Rio in 2016. This year, no fans will be allowed at the Olympics.
Juan Mabromata/AFP via Getty Images

Competing in the Olympics requires the kind of mental fortitude that most of us can’t begin to imagine. For most athletes, a lifetime of training culminates in one shot at glory with no re-dos or mulligans. If they screw up, their only shot at redeeming themselves comes in four years. Oh ... and the eyes of the entire world are watching.

As if all of that weren’t pressure enough, the Tokyo Games are going to add one further obstacle. Due to a state of emergency prompted by a recent spike in coronavirus infections, the Olympics will be held without spectators at any Tokyo venue.

Anyone who watched American sports in 2020 can attest that this is going to lead to a bizarre and downright eerie atmosphere. Despite professional sports leagues’ efforts to provide some semblance of normality, the rows upon rows of empty seats seemed to loom over the games and gave a sense that the pandemic was inescapable.

A security guard stands watch over an empty Japan National Stadium
A security guard stands watch over an empty Japan National Stadium — a site which will become very familiar during the Tokyo Olympics.
Photo by Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP via Getty Images

Now imagine being an Olympic athlete like Tom Daley. After faltering in front of the world during the Rio 2016 Semifinals, Daley was looking to Tokyo for redemption and one more shot at an elusive gold medal. He’d already been forced to endure an unexpected delay when the Games were postponed last year and continue training in a pandemic. All while knowing he’d be another year older when Tokyo finally rolled around.

On top of all of that, he’s now going to be facing the unfamiliar atmosphere of competing against the world’s finest divers to total silence. In a sport where the crowd explodes when an athlete nails a dive, Daley will be trying to achieve his greatest moment in the equivalent of a vacuum. As if he needed more thoughts weighing him down.

Or consider Alexis Sablone, Alana Smith, and the U.S. skateboarding team. This is the first year that skateboarding will be a medal event which means that in addition to competing, they’ll also be working to showcase their sport on the international stage.

Instead of performing in the conditions they’re used to, every move they execute will be met by crickets. No matter how many times they defy gravity or the laws of physics — and there will be some jaw dropping moments — we’ll never get to appreciate the full impact of their athleticism without a crowd pop to accompany it.

Some Olympic athletes are already vocalizing their trepidation about playing in empty arenas. “We were really excited, expecting it to be loud and rowdy,” U.S. men’s water polo player Marco Vavic lamented to the Los Angeles Times, “I think I definitely feed off the energy and the ruckus they cause.”

Echoing that sentiment, US triple jumper Keturah Orji tweeted her disappointment:

Despite all of this, there is hope for some events taking place outside of Tokyo. Stadiums located in prefectures like Fukujima, Miyagi, and Shizuoka are currently outside of the state of emergency and will be permitted to include spectators up to 50% of capacity or 10,000 fans.

But for the most part, when you watch the Olympics this summer, be sure to appreciate everything the athletes are enduring in order to pull the Games off. Anyone who wins a medal will have truly gone above and beyond to earn it.