Cross Country Checkup

Empty seats at Tokyo Olympics could hinder some athletes — but help others

With no fans in the stands to cheer on athletes, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will be an adjustment for many competitors, whether they rely on the crowd's roar for motivation — or for focus.

With Tokyo in a state of emergency, spectators have been banned from attending events

Japan and South Africa face off in an empty stadium during a men's soccer match at the 2020 Summer Olympics on July 22, 2021. Spectators have been banned from attending events during to surging COVID-19 cases in the city. (Shuji Kajiyama/The Associated Press)

Olympic Stadium and other venues around Japan's capital will sound different during the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. 

With no fans in the stands to cheer on athletes, it will be an adjustment for many competitors, whether they rely on the crowd's roar for motivation — or for focus.

"The crowd kind of provides some nice white noise in the background as you're jumping on the trampoline, getting up to height and getting into your routine," said former Olympic gymnast Jason Burnett.

"It can be challenging for sure if it's dead silent in an arena."

The Japanese government issued a state of emergency in the city of Tokyo earlier this month as COVID-19 cases surged, in part due to the delta variant of the coronavirus.

That means spectators, including the friends and family of athletes, will be forced to watch Olympic events unfold on televisions at home rather than in person.

"Everything will feel different about these games, and at the core of it is that lack of fans in the stands," said Catherine Sabiston, a professor at University of Toronto and the Canada Research Chair in Physical Activity and Mental Health.

Sabiston, who researches the mental and physical health of athletes, says that the din of an audience can play a significant role in some athletes' performance.

"As an athlete, if you perceive that noise as motivational and as positive and it's tied to the brain centres around positive emotion, it gives you that sense of energy and that drive and that sense of purpose," she told Cross Country Checkup.

When it comes to endurance sports, Sabiston says hearing the crowd's cheer can help energize athletes, benefiting their attention and focus. 

WATCH | Tokyo bans spectators at Olympics

Tokyo bans spectators at Olympics

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The Tokyo Olympics have been dealt another blow, with spectators now banned from attending events, two weeks before the Games are set to begin. The move comes after a state of emergency was put in place to curb rising COVID-19 cases.

'It's still the Olympics'

Burnett admits every athlete responds to the crowd differently.

"It's still the Olympics and all the pressure is going to be there. But I just think having that absence of an audience — or significantly less audience — will help some, but it will hinder others," he said.

American sprinter and world-record holder Usain Bolt told The Canadian Press earlier this month he doesn't know if he could've performed to an empty Olympic venue. Patrick Chan told The National's Ian Hanomansing, "it's a scary idea to be performing in an empty stadium."

But, Team Canada Chef de Mission Marnie McBean noted in a recent interview that many Canadian athletes set personal bests during pre-Olympic swim trials even without a crowd.

Fireworks blast off at the opening ceremonies during the Tokyo Olympics in Tokyo, Japan on Friday, July 23, 2021. The ceremony took place without a live audience. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Rick Burton, former chief marketing officer for the U.S. Olympic Committee at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, says for athletes who have trained for years to perform at the Olympics, performing without an audience is a disadvantage.

"There is that belief that a home crowd elevates the performances of the home team. We're not going to see that, and so what we're left with is somewhat of a sterile environment," said Burton, a sports management professor at Syracuse University in New York.

"I don't think it makes them any less competitive…. But I think not having spectators takes something away from the experience and for that, I just feel bad for the athletes."

Mental training as important as physical training

The benefit of hearing fans cheer may also depend on an athlete's discipline. 

While events like record-setting sprint races and marathons invite a more raucous energy in the stands, precision sports like gymnastics and diving may be more subdued.

"Where there's complexities to the sport and to the performance, the fan noise can have a different impact on that sort of channelling of the resources tied to those complexities of the task that they're doing," Sabiston explained.

WATCH | Marnie McBean says athletes won't be held back by spectator ban

Team Canada chef de mission says lack of fans at Tokyo Olympics won’t affect athletes

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Team Canada’s chef de mission, Marnie McBean, says that while spectators will be missed at the Tokyo Olympics, athletes won’t let COVID-19 restrictions hold them back.

Athletes who have not trained to manage the noise of a crowd could also find it to be a stressor, and ultimately prove a detriment to their results. 

Sabiston notes, however, that for many athletes mental training is as much a part of their routine as physical training is.

There is one key upside to a quieter Olympics, Sabiston says: audience cheering can sway judges during scored events. 

Without the noise, she believes that this year's Games could be more objective.

Artificial crowd sounds

Officials for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics say that the games won't be completely without the sound of a crowd.

Engineers have developed soundscapes from audio recorded during the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games, according to France24. Customized to each sport, the sounds will be pumped into venues in an effort to create an atmosphere that athletes are more accustomed to.

But Sabiston says the benefit to athletes will depend on the authenticity of the crowd sound, and it's often more for television viewers at home.

"We don't really know whether it has an impact or not," she said.

Ultimately, the loss of spectators goes beyond the loss of cheering and applause, Sabiston told Checkup.

"What fans bring is another level of community feel to the sport itself," she said. "And so oftentimes the stories at the Olympics are not just about the athletes, but about the fans and about the countries and that feeling of a global sense of performance.

"That will be missing by not having the fans there."

Written by Jason Vermes with files from Ashley Fraser and Steve Howard.

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