TOKYO — This is the moment Olympic athletes have dreamed of, the one they’ve been training tirelessly for and rehearsing in their minds over and over since they were kids. Finally, they step onto the mats, courts and playing fields which together make up the biggest stage in international sport. And when they do, they hear… crickets.
Or rather, the buzz of Japanese cicadas. And the doors opening and closing, and the trucks rumbling through the nearby streets, and even the idle murmurs of stadium workers.
Many Olympians bide their time for these moments, the quadrennial chance to compete in packed stadiums, show huge crowds their best, bathe in their cheers and applause. Instead, the ban on spectators at the Tokyo Games this summer has left some venues ringing as quiet as libraries. In others, the few people present – fellow athletes, team staff, volunteers, dignitaries – undertook the arduous task of creating some semblance of ambiance.
But the resulting soundscapes are unlike anything in modern Games history. It may be the Olympics, the pinnacle of sport, but it doesn’t quite look like it.
“You go to a major tournament, that’s one of the best parts, the buzz you get,” said Megan Rapinoe, a forward for the United States women’s soccer team, adding that the quiet stadiums here had sapped some of his energy. “It definitely changes the dynamic a lot.”
Grunts of effort echo through the empty corridors. Public announcements, clearly recorded in anticipation of crowded stands, echo unnecessarily through a sea of empty seats. But at least it’s a familiar stadium sound.
At the Ariake Tennis Park, the most unusual aural phenomenon was the regular buzzing of cicadas – a staple of Japanese summers, but not usually of major sports championships.
“They were actually quite annoying,” Paula Badosa, 23, a tennis player from Spain, said of the noisy insects. “I want to talk to my coach about it.” (It was unclear what Badosa thought his trainer might do about the persistent buzz.)
For athletes who once imagined themselves playing in front of hordes of buzzing fans, the hushed atmosphere has been a disappointment.
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 remembers being stunned by the atmosphere during a boxing match with Katie Taylor from Ireland and Natasha Jonas from Great Britain.
“They came out and the crowd went absolutely crazy,” Dubois said Tuesday, after a fight in a near-empty arena where the sounds of punches were repeatedly supplemented by that of a hallway door slamming. “The noise was unreal. I was just blown away by it.
“The atmosphere is not really here,” she added.
Yet some have tried, in small ways, to create it. Matthew Deane, a Bangkok television host who produces content for Thailand’s sports authority, stood in an otherwise empty booth in the boxing arena on Tuesday waving the country’s flag. He wanted to make his presence felt, he said, but the fact that there were no other fans around made him uncomfortable shouting or making too much noise.
“It’s so quiet, so you’re a bit hesitant to give it your all, because you don’t want to throw them away,” he said of the athletes. “But you want to let them know that there are at least a few people supporting them.”
Others privileged enough to watch the events expressed similar feelings of responsibility. At this week’s basketball game between Nigeria and Australia, Olukemi Dare, the wife of Nigeria’s sports minister, sat a dozen rows off the ground wearing a green track jacket and shirt. green, waving a Nigerian flag with each hand.
After spending the match as the only cheering in the almost empty 40,000-seat arena, she was asked if she thought the players had noticed her.
“I don’t know,” she laughs. “but I’m trying to cheer them up.”
The sounds of these Olympics could not contrast better with those of the previous Summer Games, in Rio de Janeiro, where uniformly cacophonous crowds led officials and athletes of certain sports to plead for a moment for peace.
Tokyo athletes speak enviously of this brouhaha.
“In Rio we had a full house 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,” said a nearby team official, with a smile.)
How does the lack of ventilators and, in some cases, the absence of noise affect athletes? It depends, experts say.
Fabian Otte, sports scientist and goalkeeping coach at German soccer club Borussia Mönchengladbach, said silence could benefit athletes in some ways, allowing them, for example, to hear their coaches and teammates better. On the other hand, he said, emotion plays a major role in performance, and athletes often say loud fans can push them beyond their normal limits.
Either way, any major change in auditory environments, Otte said, “can have a huge impact on the big picture, and it can alter performance quite drastically.”
The most dynamic arena – a concept relating to these Games – could be the Tokyo Aquatics Center, thanks to the large number of swimmers seemingly always available. Since they are allowed to attend when not competing, athletes and team staff have organized themselves into improvised cheering sections, spouting chants and using inflatable noisemakers, even as huge sections of the stands remained empty.
Some events featured leftover entertainment programming from the pre-pandemic era, creating a different kind of jarring soundtrack. In the convention hall where taekwondo events were taking place, for example, an announcer animatedly invited members of the crowd to play drums on the giant video screen. The only people in the crowd, however, were reporters and staff from various National Olympic Committees. (A few obliged.)
In other arenas, organizers implemented simulated crowd noise to add a layer of auditory texture to the games. But these attempts have been distinguished above all by their lack of sophistication.
On the opening day of the men’s basketball games at Saitama Super Arena, for example, there was some ambient noise coming out of the speakers. But it didn’t sound much like a basketball crowd, more like the din of a lunchtime restaurant. Some in the stands then wondered if a hot microphone was broadcasting noise from elsewhere in the building.
Rapinoe seemed more distracted than energized by the oddly soft fake crowd noise used for football games.
“I think there was some noise at volume 1,” Rapinoe said after a game at Tokyo Stadium with a laugh. “I was like, is that a fan, a real fan, over there?”
Like Rapinoe, the biggest names in the Games played in a silence that belied their global reputation. 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 in a 10,000-seat arena, five people cheered. All were seated in his player’s dressing room. One was his trainer.
It’s hard not to imagine what a moment like that might have looked like — a national hero, winning a big victory just days after lighting the Olympic torch — in a noisy, parallel universe.
Matthew Futterman, James Wagner and Tariq Panja contributed reporting.