TOKYO—This is the moment Olympic athletes dream about, one they’ve relentlessly trained and rehearsed in their minds over and over since they were kids. Finally, they step on the mats, pitches and fields which together represent the largest stage in international sports. And when they do, they hear … crickets of the night.
Or rather, the Japanese Cicada drone. Doors begin and close, trucks roar in the nearby streets, and even the grunts of workers in the stadium.
Many athletes spend their time in these moments, a four-year opportunity to compete in crowded stadiums, to show their best in fore of the crowd, showering with their cheers and applause. Instead, the forbid on spectators at this summer’s Tokyo Games has made some places seem as silent as bookstores. In others, a few attendees — fellow athletes, team members, volunteers, and VIPs — did the daunting task of providing some semblance of atmosphere.
But the resulting soundscapes were unlike anything in the recent history of games. This may be the Olympics, the pinnacle of the sport, but it doesn’t quite look like it.
“You go to a major tournament, that’s one of the best parts, the hype you get,” said Megan Rapinoe, striker for the US women’s soccer team, adding that the silent stadiums here drained some of her energy. “It definitely changes the dynamic a lot.”
The grunts of effort echoed inside the unload halls. Advertisements of public discourse, clearly taped in anticipation of crowded booths, scurry vainly across a sea of unload benches. But that is at fewest the sound of a familiar stadium.
At Ariake Tennis Park, the most unusual acoustic phenomenon was the constant buzzing of cicadas – a staple of Japanese summer, but not in major sports leagues.
“They were actually considerate of annoying,” Paula Padusa, a 23-year-old tennis player from Spain, said of the annoying bugs. “I want to talk to my coach about them.” (It wasn’t clear what Padusa thinks her coach might be competent to do about the ongoing crises.)
For athletes who once envisioned themselves performing for throngs of raucous fans, the laid-back atmosphere was a nuisance.
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 remembered being stunned by the atmosphere at a boxing match there involving Katie Taylor of Ireland and Natasha Jonas of Britain.
“They’re out and the crowd is totally gone,” Dubois said on Tuesday, following a game in a mostly unload arena where the sounds of punches were repeatedly supplemented by the sounds of the entrance door closing. “The noise was unreal. It just blew me away.”
“The atmosphere isn’t really here,” she added.
Some still try, in little ways, to create it. Matthew Dean, a TV presenter from Bangkok who produces content for the Sports Authority of Thailand, stood on an otherwise unload platform at the boxing ring on Tuesday waving the country’s flag. He said he wanted to make his presence felt, but the fact that there were no other fans left made him embarrassed to scream or make a lot of noise.
“It’s very silent, so you’re actually a bit unwilling to put in all the effort, because you don’t want to get rid of them,” he said of the athletes. “But you want to tell them that there are at fewest a few people supporting them.”
Others who were privileged enough to watch the events expressed similar feelings of responsibility. At this week’s Nigeria-Australia basketball match, Olukimi Dari, wife of Nigeria’s sports minister, sat dozens of rows from the floor, in a green jacket and green shirt, waving the Nigerian flag in each hand.
After spending the game as the only one cheering in the 40,000-seat arena, she was asked if she thought players noticed her.
“I don’t know,” she said, laughing. “But I try to urge them.”
The sounds of these Olympics could not contrast more with those of the previous summer games, in Rio de Janeiro, where uniformly dissonant crowds prompted officials and athletes at some sports to beg for moments of peace.
Athletes in Tokyo longingly speak of the clamor.
“In Rio, we had a whole lounge and it was really loud,” said Liu Jia, an Austrian table tennis player, adding that she heard someone coughing while she was playing this week. (“Oh, it was me,” a nearby team official said with a smile.
How does the lack of fans, and in some cases the absence of noise, affect athletes? It depends, experts say.
Fabian Otti, sports scientist and goalkeeper coach for German football club Borussia Mönchengladbach, believes that silence can 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 that boisterous fans can inspire them to shove their natural limits.
Regardless of any major changes to the auditory environments, Ottie said, “It can have a vast impact on the big picture, and it can change performance in a completely severe way.”
Perhaps the liveliest arena – a relative concept in these games – is the Aquatics Center in Tokyo, thanks to the big number of swimmers who forever seem to be on hand. Since they are allowed to attend while not competing, the athletes and staff members there have organized themselves into makeshift cheerleading sections, chanting chants and using inflatable noise makers, even as big areas of the stands remain unload.
Some events featured antique entertainment from pre-pandemic times, creating another considerate of dissonant soundtrack. In the conference room where taekwondo events were held, for example, a broadcaster excitedly invited audience members to pantomime as he played drums on the giant video screen. However, the only people in the crowd were journalists and employees of the various National Olympic Committees. (A few must bravely).
In other arenas, organizers have been applying crowd noise simulation to add a layer of auditory texture to the games. But these attempts were mostly notable for their lack of sophistication.
On the opening day of the men’s basketball games at the Saitama Super Arena, for example, there was ambient noise of some sort coming out of the speakers. But it was less like a basketball crowd, more like the din of a restaurant at lunchtime service. Some in the stands marveled, then, whether a hot microphone was emitting noise from elsewhere in the building.
Rapinoe seemed more distracted than distracted by the artificial, silent, and eerie crowd noise used at football games.
“I think there was noise at the volume level like level 1,” Rapinoe said following a match in Tokyo, laughing. “I was like, is this a fan, a real fan, right there?”
Like Rapinoe, the biggest names in games have played in silence that belies their global standing. When Naomi Osaka – one of the world’s most famous athletes and one of Japan’s biggest sports stars – won her opening match on Sunday on a 10,000-seat circuit, five people applauded. They were all sitting in the players box. One of them was her coach.
It’s firm not to imagine what a moment like this – a national hero, who scored a major triumph just days following lighting the Olympic torch – could look like in a tumultuous parallel universe.
Matthew Futterman, James Wagner and Tariq Banga contributed reporting.