Tokyo 2020 will forever be known as the spectatorless Olympics, a beautiful spectacle of sport performed in silent stadiums in front of only a handful of people.
Amid all the pandemonium created by the COVID-19 pandemic, international spectators were banned in March from attending the Olympics, but there was still hope that domestic spectators would be able to attend the Games in limited numbers.
That hope vanished on July 9 — two weeks before the opening ceremony — when Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced that Tokyo would enter a fourth state of emergency due to increasing COVID-19 cases, and Olympic venues in the capital and its neighboring prefectures would be barred from admitting spectators.
Who then would attend the Games in person? A handful of journalists, Olympic delegation members and representatives of the International Olympic Committee: A privileged few to witness the bizarre spectacle of elite sport played in vast, empty stadiums.
The lack of fans was most noticeable at the bigger venues such as Tokyo’s Ajinomoto Stadium, which hosted the Olympic rugby sevens. In October 2019, the same stadium had been the site of the quarterfinals of the Rugby World Cup, and the difference could not have been more stark. During that event, not a single seat stood empty, and a vast, excited, unmasked and international crowd roared in support of the athletes on the field.
In 2021? Prerecorded crowd noises were piped into the 50,000-seat arena, trying — though failing — to generate the same sense of atmosphere and occasion. The rugby was still beautiful and the celebrations of the Fiji team when they won gold were delightful, but the backdrop of empty seats was a constant reminder of the sad reality of these Games.
Not all stadiums were empty. Venues in prefectures without states of emergency — such as the Izu Velodrome in Shizuoka Prefecture — were allowed to seat a limited number of fans, but even these lacked the electric atmosphere of past Olympics: The stadiums were at less than half capacity, and people in attendance were limited to clapping to show their support.
Perhaps the only saving grace of having no spectators — aside from the obvious reduction in Games-related COVID-19 cases — is that fans weren’t made to suffer the heat that made many of the open-air venues absolutely punishing for all present. The overwhelming heat of a Tokyo summer was a concern from the moment Tokyo made its bid for the Olympics and the weather did not fail to deliver. The temperature exceeded 35 degrees Celsius on multiple days over the two-week period of the Games, and the humidity added an extra layer of suffering for athletes competing here.
If thousands of fans had been packed into the stands, heatstroke could have made Tokyo 2020 a complete disaster. As global temperatures rise, heat is something that future host cities will have to pay close attention to as spectators return to the Games.
The Olympic Games are a festival of sport, but it should be an event that is for the public. After all, they are the ones who pay for it with their taxes, graciously giving up their cities for the Games, and they are the ones who should be able to enjoy and benefit from them most.
It is a tragedy that the public wasn’t able to see 13-year-old Momiji Nishiya win gold in skateboarding in person, that only a few people saw Gianmarco Tamberi and Mutaz Barshim share their high jumping gold in the newly built National Stadium and that fewer still were there to witness Simone Biles return to the balance beam to win bronze after her struggle with mental health issues.
As brilliant as the competition was — and it was absolutely brilliant — without spectators to share in the spectacle, the Tokyo Olympics were soulless.
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