Athletes go it alone as Olympic venues remain empty

No spectators will be allowed at the majority of venues, where athletes will hang medals around their own necks to protect against spreading the coronavirus.



July 23, 2021 - 1:48 PM

The Olympic rings are seen at the Odaiba waterfront in Tokyo on June 3, 2021. (Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

Michael Phelps reached for his mother’s hand through a chainlink fence near the pool. The 19-year-old swimmer had just won his first Olympic medal — gold, of course — at the 2004 Athens Games, and he wanted to share it with the woman who raised him on her own.

That kind of moment between loved ones won’t be happening at the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics.

No spectators — local or foreign — will be allowed at the vast majority of venues, where athletes will hang medals around their own necks to protect against spreading the coronavirus. No handshakes or hugs on the podium, either.

“I like to feed off of the crowd,” defending all-around champion gymnast Simone Biles said, “so I’m a little bit worried about how I’ll do under those circumstances.”

Catching sight of familiar faces during competition can bolster an athlete on a big stage. It helped Matthew Centrowitz at the U.S. track trials, where fans were allowed.

“Seeing my family in the crowd and hearing them gave me a little sense of comfort, and what I needed to hear and see to calm my nerves a little bit,” said Centrowitz, the defending Olympic 1,500-meter champion.

The youngest athlete on the U.S. team in Tokyo calls it “weird” that her family won’t be in the stands.

“They’re usually at all my meets,” said Katie Grimes, a 15-year-old swimmer from Las Vegas.

Katie Hoff was the same age as Grimes when she was the youngest member of the U.S. team in Athens. Nerves got to her in her first event, and Hoff hyperventilated and vomited on the pool deck.

“I hope us older swimmers can show them the ropes a little bit and create that family environment,” three-time Olympian Katie Ledecky said. “We will make sure we stay in touch with our families and keep them connected to what we’re doing.”

The decision to prohibit fans was made for health and safety concerns. The Games will be held during a state of emergency in Tokyo, with rising coronavirus infections in a country where 16.8% of the population is fully vaccinated. Variant strains of the coronavirus are emerging around the world, too.

Those reaction shots of excited, shocked or crying family members in the stands? Forget it. Singing, chanting and cheering among flag-waving fans at the venues? TV producers will have to look elsewhere. Phelps’ son, Boomer, who was 3 months old at the time, became an adorable sight at the Olympic pool in 2016. No kids allowed this time.

The people who raised them, comforted them, financed them, and encouraged them through injury and defeat will have to be content to keep up with their athletes through calls, texts and video chats, when they’re not watching the competition on various devices.

“She said, ‘On TV, I can see it better anyway,’” Dutch swimmer Kira Toussaint said of her mother, Jolanda de Rover, a gold medalist swimmer at the 1984 Olympics.

Building support and camaraderie among athletes who usually compete individually has taken on new importance for coaches during the pandemic. They’re turning to veterans to inform and reassure younger first-timers.

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