This is the moment that Olympic athletes have dreamed about, the one they have trained for relentlessly and rehearsed in their minds repeatedly since they were children. Finally, they are stepping onto the mats and courts and playing fields that together represent the biggest stage in international sports. And when they do, they’re hearing … crickets.
Or rather, the drone of Japanese cicadas. And doors opening and closing, and trucks rumbling by on nearby streets, and even the idle murmuring of stadium workers.
Many Olympians bide their time for these moments, the quadrennial chance to compete in rousingly packed stadiums, to show a huge crowd their best, to bathe in its cheers and its applause. Instead, the ban on spectators at the Tokyo Games this summer has left some venues sounding as quiet as libraries. In others, the few people in attendance — fellow athletes, team staff members, volunteers, dignitaries — have taken on the uphill task of providing some semblance of ambience.
But the resulting soundscapes have been unlike anything in the modern history of the Games. These may be the Olympics, the pinnacle of sports, but they don’t quite sound like it.
“You go to a major tournament, that’s one of the best parts, the buzz that you get,” said Megan Rapinoe, a forward for the U.S. women’s soccer team, adding that the quiet stadiums here had sapped some of her energy. “It definitely changes the dynamic a lot.”
Grunts of exertion echo inside empty halls. Public address announcements, clearly recorded in anticipation of packed stands, blare out pointlessly across a sea of empty seats. But at least that is a familiar stadium sound.
At the Ariake Tennis Park, the most unusual aural phenomenon has been the steady hum of cicadas — a fixture of Japanese summers, but typically not of major sports championships.
“They were actually kind of annoying,” Paula Badosa, 23, a tennis player from Spain, said about the noisy insects. “I want to talk to my coach about them.” (It was unclear what Badosa thought her coach might be able to do about the persistent buzzing.)
For athletes who once envisioned themselves performing for hordes of buzzing fans, the hushed vibe has been a bummer.
Caroline Dubois, 20, a boxer from London, arrived in Tokyo with the sounds of the 2012 Games in her hometown still ringing in her ears. She recalled being dumbstruck by the ambience at a boxing match there featuring Katie Taylor of Ireland and Natasha Jonas of Britain.
“They walked out and the crowd went absolutely mental,” Dubois said Tuesday, after a bout in a mostly empty arena where the sounds of punches were repeatedly supplemented by that of a hallway door slamming shut. “The noise was unreal. I was just blown away by it.”
“The atmosphere ain’t really here,” she added.
Still, some have been trying, in small ways, to create it. Matthew Deane, a television host from Bangkok who is producing content for the sports authority of Thailand, stood in an otherwise empty stand in the boxing arena Tuesday waving the country’s flag. He wanted to make his presence felt, he said, but the fact that there were no other fans made him feel awkward about actually yelling or making too much noise.
“It’s so quiet, so you’re actually a bit hesitant to go all out, because you don’t want to throw them off,” he said of the athletes. “But you want to let them know there’s at least a few people supporting them.”
Others privileged enough to be watching events expressed similar feelings of responsibility. At the basketball game this week between Nigeria and Australia, Olukemi Dare, the wife of the Nigerian sports minister, sat a dozen rows up from the floor, wearing a green track jacket and green shirt, waving a Nigerian flag with each hand.
After she spent the game as the only one cheering in the mostly empty 40,000-seat arena, she was asked if she thought the players noticed her.
“I don’t know,” she said, laughing. “but I’m trying to cheer them up.”
The sounds of these Olympics could not contrast more with those of the previous Summer Games, in Rio de Janeiro, where uniformly cacophonous crowds led officials and athletes in some sports to beg for a moment’s peace.
Athletes in Tokyo speak longingly of that hubbub.
“In Rio, we had a full hall and it was really loud,” said Liu Jia, an Austrian table tennis player, adding that she could hear someone coughing while she was playing this week. (“Oh, that was me,” a nearby team official said, with a smile.)
How does a lack of fans, and in some cases the absence of noise, affect athletes? It depends, experts say.
Fabian Otte, a sports scientist and goalkeeper coach for the German soccer club Borussia Mönchengladbach, mused that silence could benefit athletes in some ways, allowing them, for example, to better hear their coaches and teammates. On the other hand, he said, emotion plays a major role in performance, and athletes often say loud fans can inspire them to push past their normal limits.
Regardless, any major changes in auditory environments, Otte said, “can have a huge impact on the big picture, and it can change performance in quite a drastic way.”
The most vibrant arena — a relative concept in these Games — might be the Tokyo Aquatics Center, thanks to the large volume of swimmers seemingly always on hand. Since they are allowed to attend while not competing, athletes and team staff members there have been organizing themselves into makeshift cheering sections, spouting off chants and using inflatable noise makers, even as huge swaths of the stands remained empty.
Some events have featured vestigial entertainment programming from prepandemic times, creating another sort of discordant soundtrack. At the convention hall where the taekwondo events were held, for example, an announcer animatedly invited crowd members to pantomime playing drums on the giant video screen. The only people in the crowd, though, were journalists and staff members of various national Olympic committees. (A few gamely obliged).
In others arenas, organizers have been implementing simulated crowd noise to add a layer of auditory texture to the Games. But these attempts have been notable mostly for their lack of sophistication.
On the opening day of men’s basketball games at Saitama Super Arena, for example, there was ambient noise of some sort coming out of the speakers. But it did not sound much like a basketball crowd, more like the din of a restaurant at lunch time service. Some in the stands wondered, then, whether a hot microphone was broadcasting noise from somewhere else in the building.
Rapinoe sounded more distracted than energized by the fake, oddly soft crowd noise used for the soccer games.
“I think there was noise on like level-1 volume,” Rapinoe said after a game at Tokyo stadium, laughing. “I was like, is that a fan, an actual fan, there?”
Like Rapinoe, the biggest names at the Games have played in silence that belied their global standing. When Naomi Osaka — one of the most famous athletes in the world and one of Japan’s biggest sports stars — won her opening-round tennis match Sunday in a 10,000-seat arena, five people clapped. All were seated in her player box. One was her coach.
It is hard not to imagine what a moment like that — a national hero, notching a big victory only days after lighting the Olympic torch — could have sounded like in a parallel, noisy universe.
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