Justin Gatlin is used to winning races.
As for the silence that greeted the American star's victory in the men's 100-meter final during an Olympic test event at National Stadium on Sunday — that was new.
"Weird," Gatlin said. "It's weird running in a stadium with no fans. It feels almost like a time trial or kind of like an intrasquad meet."
Japan's new National Stadium was built with at least 68,000 fans in mind but was empty during the test event, as Tokyo is currently under a state of emergency amid a rise in coronavirus infections.
The scene may have been a preview of what it will be like when the Tokyo Olympics begin in July.
Tokyo 2020 organizers decided in March that no fans from overseas will be allowed to attend the games. A decision on domestic fans is expected in the coming weeks.
On Sunday, a silence hung over the mostly empty stadium when the PA announcer wasn’t speaking and was occasionally broken up by music. Instead of a kaleidoscope of colors in the stands from people draped in national team colors and waving flags, there were only the drab greens and whites from the bottoms of folded-up chairs.
Artificial crowd noise was pumped in but lacked the fervor and emotion of actual spectators. The test event’s men's 100-meter final — the marquee event of a Summer Olympics — went off in near silence. Shuhei Tada nearly beat Gatlin to the finish line, which would have normally led to rapturous roars from the home crowd. All Tada received, though, was a hug from Gatlin.
It was an atmosphere more befitting of a local track meet than the Olympics.
"All the athletes who are gonna come, they have to with their focus on level 10," Gatlin said. "Because athletes who are there who rise to the occasion because they see the crowd, that won't be there. So you have to be able to imagine it or bring your own energy to the track."
The atmosphere wasn’t off-putting for everyone.
“I think it was a good atmosphere,” said Momone Ueda, who won the women’s javelin throw. “It was easy for me to compete.”
Tokyo 2020 organizers are still fine-tuning their approach to hosting the games during a pandemic. The competition held Sunday was the latest in a series of test events for the games, which are scheduled to kick off July 23.
With public sentiment still largely against holding the Olympics as scheduled, according to recent polls, organizers are using the events as a way to test both general operations and COVID-19 countermeasures.
Many of the countermeasures in place Sunday will likely be implemented for the games in July.
The athletes were tested for the virus, and Japanese sprinter Yuki Koike mentioned he needed to track his physical condition over several days. There were over 1,000 people, including athletes, involved in the athletics event. Staff, who wore masks, and some who wore both masks and face shields, checked the athletes' temperatures when they entered the venue, and there was hand sanitizer placed in various spots. Athletes are also going to be asked to wear masks outside of competition during the Olympics.
Equipment was cleaned after use and the participants were kept at a distance from the media in the mixed zone after competing. Organizers said the goal for the Olympics will be to lay out the stadium in a way that allows for social distancing when athletes are going to and from various areas.
“We conducted our COVID countermeasures very thoroughly,” said Yasuo Mori, deputy executive of the Tokyo 2020 Operations Bureau.
Many who participated Sunday agreed.
"I think the COVID countermeasures were done very thoroughly at this competition," Tada said. "This was the first event where I saw this level of countermeasures. I expect these same measures will also be taken at the Olympics."
Some felt the countermeasures were good but that there was room for improvement.
"I think more preventative measures could be taken in the restrooms and the locker rooms," said Ayako Kimura, the third-place finisher in the women's 100-meter hurdles.
Asuka Terada, who won that event, said there are areas where organizers should make it easier to employ social distancing and that all areas should be disinfected properly.
The event featured a handful of overseas-based athletes such as Gatlin, which allowed organizers to test that aspect of their preparations. Those athletes were placed in a hotel, received their meals in their rooms and were not allowed to use public transportation.
One major concern of those against holding the games is the number of international athletes and staff members coming en masse to a nation where most people will not be vaccinated.
"I think this competition was a precursor to see exactly how the Olympics can go off," Gatlin said. "Maintaining a bubble for the athletes to be able to stay healthy and also the citizens of Japan to be able to stay healthy with foreign athletes coming into the country.
"I think it was a success. Definitely different. It's going to be hard to adapt, but the caution is definitely needed."
Gatlin will be aiming to make his fourth Olympic team this summer. The 39-year-old is a four-time Olympic medalist and won gold in the 100 at the Athens Games in 2004.
Gatlin is hopeful the games can be staged this summer but understands some in Japan are wary.
"I think it would be selfish of me to say that I want to accomplish my dream when there are people out there who are scared for their lives," Gatlin said. "I totally understand that. But I want to tell everyone out there, let's take precautions first before they think about canceling.
"If it's vaccines, if it's wearing masks, if it's distancing yourself, let's take all the necessary precautions to be put in place. Because the Olympics is something that brings all the nations together. I think that if this goes off without a hitch and it's successful, it's a great step forward not only for sports but for the world to come back together.”
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