P.V. Sindhu’s remarkable semi-victory at the 2016 Rio Olympics remains vivid in my memory to this day, as it certainly does in the memory of many an Indian. She clinched point after point with such confidence as the spirited Indians in the audience cheered with pride after each. Her cry of part joy and part relief after winning the match point was met with euphoric roaring, screaming, dancing, and flag-waving from the spectators. At the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, by contrast, her cry of victory following the equally remarkable bronze medal-winning match point was met with an animated yell from all but one person – her coach – save some faint cheers and applause from others in the almost empty stadium. No dancing, no whistling, and no flag-waving. The Tokyo Olympic Games, as we all know, were played sans spectators.
About a month before the commencement of the Games, the organisers and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) permitted venues to be filled to 50% of their total capacity so long as the crowds do not exceed 10,000. Tokyo, however, witnessed a worrying surge in COVID-19 cases in the following weeks; a state of emergency was declared between July 12 and August 22. Subsequently, the Japanese Olympic Minister Tamayo Marukawa called for a complete ban on spectators, including family members, in both indoor and outdoor venues. Given the fatal impact of the delta strain of the virus and the general responsibility to prevent the flare up of infections again, the decision was undeniably both necessary and right.[i]
What is also undeniable is that the absence of spectators was no insignificant one. As social theorists remark, that which is absent is equally, if not more, important than that which is present, visible, and tangible.[ii] This absence made itself known throughout the duration of the Games – when athletes celebrated their hard-earned victories with their loved ones through a screen rather than in the flesh and when exceptional sporting performances were received by near silence rather than with hooting and hurrahing. In fact, some athletes such as Australian tennis star Nick Kyrgios and illustrious American gymnast Simone Biles went so far as to partially or completely withdraw themselves from the Tokyo Games, citing the lack of an audience as part of the reason for it. “It’s been my dream to represent Australia at the Olympics. But I also know myself. The thought of playing in front of empty stadiums just doesn’t sit right with me,” Kyrgios tweeted.[iii]
How exactly does the absence of spectators affect the performance of Olympic athletes, who have poured their blood, sweat, and tears into training for these very awaited moments?
Social facilitation is a psychological concept which refers to the impact and changes in a person’s performance when others are around them as opposed to when they are alone. In the Olympics context, having an audience can precipitate this impact. Crowd noise and applause boost athletes’ adrenaline which, of course, helps improve their performance. In certain field events like high jump and pole vault, for instance, they rely on the high tempo and fervour of the crowd to make for a better launch. Some athletes also pick up cues from crowd booing to become more aggressive and motivated at play.[iv] Furthermore, the spectators’ auditory cues provide them with a sense of feedback on their performance and even influence judges’ scores.[v] This is especially true of sports like diving, artistic gymnastics, and synchronised which are, to a certain degree, subjective. Diver Delaney Schnell, who won America’s first ever medal in the 10-meter synchronised diving event, admitted, “When you come up you hear them. That’s where it is tough not having spectators because it does give you that adrenaline kick.”[vi]
These phenomena are better explained by the findings of a study conducted by a professor at John Hopkins University. It suggests that when people are being observed, the part of the brain related to ‘theory of the mind’ becomes more activated. This ‘theory of the mind’ processes how one thinks about what others think of them and, in turn, affects how they process motivation.[vii] Given all of this, it is indeed understandable why some athletes tried to make up for the crucial absence of an audience by cheering their own teammates on during the Games. Some of the U.S. team’s volleyball players nearly lost their voices doing so.[viii]
Japan’s Olympic team in particular partly lost out on the ‘home-field advantage.’ The hosts of the preceding three Olympic Games – held in Rio, London, and Beijing in 2016, 2012, and 2008 respectively – did exceptionally well during their respective home Games as compared with the previous Games in terms of both medals and number of finalists.[ix] Thus, that the Japanese athletes could not enjoy in-person home support from Japanese spectators, despite still having home knowledge and experience of the venues and their conditions, is likely to have affected their performance at the Games.
None of this, however, is to say that the absence of spectators has no merits or that it has a blanket impact on all sports and sportspersons. For one, athletes partaking in sports like archery, golf, and shooting would rather not have spectators; they require silence to concentrate better and cannot risk being distracted by noise in the background. Athletes who have higher levels of social or competitive anxiety and those who simply do not thrive under pressure would also prefer not to have an audience and the added pressure that follows. Former Canadian Olympic Alexander Kopacz, for instance, when asked about the no-fan Tokyo Olympics, admitted to trying to block out crowd noise while competing, for it would get too overwhelming.[x]
For another, fans who constitute the audience at the Games are generally from a select few countries. Unsung athletes and those from lesser known nations – particularly the Global South – are hardly noticed by spectators, much less cheered. The absence of an audience and the ensuing silence thus work in their favour, providing them a respite from all the unsettling noise, heckling, verbal aggression, and overall distraction that they are usually subjected to.
The eerie silence in Tokyo’s stadiums and courts amplified the echoes of the players as they grunted in elation and frustration alike, the splash of the water as the swimmers kicked away and the occasional applause from volunteers and others. It also offered us television viewers a glimpse of the talk among athletes and coaches. If not anything, this served as an unintended yet vital reminder that Olympic athletes are but mortals despite constantly being put on a pedestal.
On balance, all said and done about spectators, the Tokyo Games went on. Lofty expectations of Olympic athletes, whether imposed by others or themselves, persisted across the globe, notwithstanding. Athletes still carried the weight of entire nations’ ambitions, their resilience and excellence shining through. New Olympic Records, World Records and Personal Bests were achieved, unprecedented medal tallies were realised, and tear-jerking acts of sportsmanship were witnessed, pandemic or no pandemic, audience or no audience.
[i] “Tokyo Olympics will be held without spectators - Games minister,” Sportstar, July 8, 2021, https://sportstar.thehindu.com/olympics/tokyo-olympics/news/tokyo-olympics-2021-no-fans-during-tokyo-games-tamayo-marukawa-japan-emergency-covid-19/article35217440.ece.
[ii] Lars Meier, Lars Frers and Erika Sigvardsdotter, “Editorial: The importance of absence in the present: practices of remembrance and the contestation of absences,” Cultural Geographies 20, no. 4 (2013), https://www.jstor.org/stable/44289619.
[iii] Nadia Lam, “Tokyo 2020 Olympics: will empty stadiums and lack of fans affect athletes?” South China Morning Post, July 17, 2021, https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/health-environment/article/3141462/tokyo-2020-olympics-will-empty-stadiums-and-lack-fans.
[iv] Alice Park, “How Will Empty Stands Affect Olympic Athletes in Tokyo?” Time, July 24, 2021, https://time.com/6083142/no-spectators-olympics-impact-athletes/.
[v] Saba Aziz, “First fan-less Olympics: What is the impact on athletes?” Global News, July 31, 2021, https://globalnews.ca/news/8076850/tokyo-olympics-no-fans-effect-athletes/.
[vi] Lisa Du, “Olympic Athletes Struggle With Arenas Devoid of Cheering Fans,” Bloomberg, July 29, 2021, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-07-29/olympic-athletes-struggle-with-arenas-devoid-of-cheering-fans.
[vii] Alice Park, “How Will Empty Stands Affect Olympic Athletes in Tokyo?” Time, July 24, 2021, https://time.com/6083142/no-spectators-olympics-impact-athletes/.
[viii] Lisa Du, “Olympic Athletes Struggle With Arenas Devoid of Cheering Fans,” Bloomberg, July 29, 2021, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-07-29/olympic-athletes-struggle-with-arenas-devoid-of-cheering-fans.
[ix] Misha Ketchell, “Tokyo Olympics without crowds: will the home nation’s medal chances suffer?” The Conversation, July 19, 2021, https://theconversation.com/tokyo-olympics-without-crowds-will-the-home-nations-medal-chances-suffer-164267.
[x] Saba Aziz, “First fan-less Olympics: What is the impact on athletes?” Global News, July 31, 2021, https://globalnews.ca/news/8076850/tokyo-olympics-no-fans-effect-athletes/.