Crowded out

The Olympics are underway at last, but minus a key ingredient the postponed Games feel more like an obligation than a celebration… (日本語版)

Tokyo 2020, which was starting to feel like it was just just an illusion, a mirage on the horizon that would never actually take place, is finally upon us.

The Olympics are finally happening, athletes are finally in Japan and finally competing with each other for some of the most coveted titles in the world of sport. And yet, something is lacking.

The Games have begun, but there’s an air of incompleteness, a sense of something not quite being right. Without spectators this just doesn’t feel like the Olympics. 

“We can only go faster, we can only aim higher, we can only become stronger, if we stand together – in solidarity,” IOC president Thomas Bach intoned at the opening ceremony at Tokyo National Stadium on 23 July, seemingly unaware of the irony of his words echoing around a stadium empty except for the athletes and the thousand or so members of the ‘Olympic Family’ afforded entry.

“This is why the IOC has adapted the Olympic motto to our times: faster, higher, stronger – together. This feeling of togetherness – this is the light at the end of the dark tunnel.”

And while we have already seen plenty of sensational performances – Yuki Horigome claiming the first ever skateboarding gold for Japan, 18-year-old Tunisian Ahmed Hafnaoui triumphing in the men’s 400 metre freestyle, Uta and Hifumi Abe being crowned Olympic champions within an hour of each other – the lingering feeling is disappointment that fans cannot be in the venues to revel in these triumphs along with the victors.

There was a similar sensation during the opening ceremony, a slow and mostly sombre affair which was closed to the public but which resulted in thousands gathering a few hundred metres away anyway to either experience the moment as best they could or protest against the Games, depending on their perspective on the event.

Things have been very much the same at the football, with the swathes of empty seats at the cavernous stadiums sucking energy out of proceedings and making everything feel flat. 

Mana Iwabuchi’s audacious equaliser against Canada would have taken the roof off Sapporo Dome, Takefusa Kubo’s strikes against South Africa and Mexico deserved a wall of sound, and Ritsu Doan’s penalty rippling the Saitama Stadium net should have torn the tension apart and sparked scenes of jubilation. Instead, Blur’s ‘Song 2’ and the shouts of the players and team staff were all that could be heard.

“It’s really weird with no crowd, really weird,” British swimmer Adam Peaty said after his 100m breaststroke heat on 24 July. “But that’s the psychological thing we need to adapt to. I had no idea how it was going to feel out there.

“It doesn’t feel like an Olympics. It’s not the same, of course it’s not. So it’s about controlling all of those emotions and performing when it matters.”

Covid-19 has of course thrown the world into turmoil, and the sight of tens of thousands of maskless fans piled on top of one another at the Euros was certainly jarring when cast against the restraint being shown by so many others around the world as they wait for vaccinations and life to return to normality.

But sport in Japan has shown for the past year that it can safely manage supporter presence at stadiums, and allowing limited numbers into venues provided they follow safety precautions would have added so much to these Games – for the athletes, for the organisers, and of course for the fans themselves.

”I think a lot of people’s tax money is going to hold these Olympics,” Maya Yoshida said in widely reported comments after Japan’s final pre-tournament friendly against Spain. “Despite that, people can’t go and watch. So you wonder about who the Olympics is for, and what it is for. Of course athletes want to play in front of fans.

“It’s not just the players who are competing, but the family members, every one of them. So if they can’t watch the match, well who and what is that match for?”

Of course, everybody knows who and what it is for, and why the Olympics are being forced through despite all of the difficulties and opposition to them. The ban on fans merely serves to underline that fact, and further drives home the feeling that an event which is supposed to be a communal celebration of teams and individuals pushing themselves to be the best they can be is instead little more than an obligation.

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July 2021

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