The popular image of the Olympics is one of deafening crowds, cheering their athletes to victory. But this month, after a lifetime of training, squads of archers, fencers, gymnasts, weight lifters, swimmers and pole vaulters have flocked to Athens only to find -- well -- not very many fans.
Some people might shrug off the empty seats as simply an unfortunate detail. But, experts say, the size and intensity of the crowd can be an emotional wild card -- an intangible factor that can influence an athlete's performance.
Throngs of fans have an energizing effect on athletes, sports psychologists say, pushing some to greater feats of skill, speed or strength. But, they caution, this psychological boost does not always enhance performance.
"Crowds are excellent for getting adrenaline pumping in an athlete," said Dr. Natalie Newton, an Atlanta-based licensed sports psychologist. "Unfortunately, adrenaline is the last chemical you want flooding your system in any finesse sport."
The more concentration required, the more an athlete needs to "tune out" the crowd. Also, the finer the motor skills required, the more the audience needs to disappear for the athlete. "In other words," she said in an e-mail interview from Athens, "a screaming crowd may be great for a speed skater and terrible for an archer."
In general, crowds can improve performance in sports that involve strength, endurance or teams. They also can prove beneficial in events that go on long enough for an athlete to get really tired. This effect on athletes has been dubbed "social facilitation," by sports psychologists. And its influence depends not just on the type of sport but also on the athlete's personality and level of experience.
Crowds tinker with emotions, said Adam Naylor, who oversees Boston University's Athletic Enhancement Center and works mostly with tennis players, hockey players and figure skaters.
"Athletes at the Olympic level tend to perform well under a lot of emotional arousal, so fans are good," Naylor said, adding that crowds typically benefit "gross motor skill sports" the most, where technique isn't as important and it's just a lot of muscle, speed and power.
Oregon-based psychologist Kay Porter, author of "The Mental Athlete" (Human Kinetics, 2003), said some long jumpers and pole vaulters will start a rhythmic clapping with the crowd before they compete, to psyche themselves up. In a recent NBC television interview, U.S. shot putter Adam Nelson said he likes to get the crowd cheering before he performs.
"They use the energy of the crowds to feed themselves and push themselves," said Porter, a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee Sport Psychology Registry. "That energy is food."
She says she also has worked with women's college basketball teams that have devised techniques to compensate for a lack of fans in the stands. "Basketball teams work with the energy of the crowd," Porter said. "Even if it is against them, it energizes them. When they are playing in an empty gymnasium, they have to work to overcome that. They talk to each other a lot."
Robert Nideffer, a psychologist for the U.S. Olympic track and field team in 1984 and 1988, says crowds can provide a lift when athletes are nearing exhaustion.
"Where the emotional boost is more likely to help in the Olympics is in situations where an extra boost of energy is required because reserves are depleted and you need the extra adrenaline," said Nideffer, founder of San Diego-based Enhanced Performance Systems, which has worked with athletes, Navy SEALs and corporate executives.
For athletes competing in technique and finesse sports like gymnastics, archery, golf, riflery or tennis, that rush of adrenaline from a roaring crowd can throw off timing, waste valuable energy and even impair cognitive function, sports psychologists say.
"I would say most of those athletes have worked very hard to block everything out," said Sandy Dupcak, a Boston sport psychologist. In the biathlon, for example, athletes have to stop cross-country skiing and shoot. "They are so focused, they have learned to totally slow their bodies down and literally shoot between heartbeats. They are not paying attention to the crowds."
Whatever the sport though, the effect of the crowds will come down to an athlete's experience, psychologists say.
"In order to play his or her best, an athlete needs to have the maximum amount of energy that you can control effectively," said David Kauss, a sports and clinical psychologist at UCLA. "That varies from sport to sport, person to person. If you go into a stadium with 10,000 screaming fans, that is going to kick you up a notch, to the point where you might make a mistake."
For example, he says, even the U.S. men's basketball team, which includes professional athletes, was unprepared for the crowds in Athens. The players, used to playing in pro arenas, found themselves in Greece on a different court, with different referees and smaller, more passionate, more patriotic crowds. In their first game, against Puerto Rico, they faced half a dozen unexpected variables. By the time they adjusted, Kauss said, it was too late.
"The experience factor is what enables you to adjust to whatever the circumstance is," Kauss said. "Some athletes are used to competing before crowds, and when they aren't there, that is an adjustment. But an adjustment to fewer spectators is easier than more spectators."
Psychologists agree crowds probably make less difference for most Olympic athletes than for a pro athlete who goes out day after day until the competition becomes almost routine.
"Then, the crowd can do a lot to pick you up and energize you," Nideffer said. "At the Olympics, you are energized with or without the crowd."
Naylor adds that professional athletes' goals on the court may be different from those of amateurs, who just want to do their best. "We are in an age where, in the NBA, athletes understand it is a performance, which is a whole different vibe," Naylor said. "Pro sports is entertainment. Sometimes Terrell Owens [receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles] knows he is doing something stupid, but he also knows it will make you buy a funky shirt."
Increasingly, however, today's athletes are focusing on a different audience, not just the ones within shouting distance.
"Present Olympians grew up in an electronic age," Newton said. "They are as aware of the television cameras' positions and the times their sports air in their homelands as they are aware of the real audience. In many ways, airtime is more important, as far as the impact it has on future careers. Therefore, seeing a full stadium is nice, but being seen at home is more important."
Psychologists say that, in the end, for top athletes it is all about attitude. They have trained themselves to frame their experiences in a positive way, control the variables they can and tune out the rest.
Thus, athletes from Lisa Leslie to Sheryl Swoopes of the U.S. basketball team have tried to put a good spin on the lack of fans. So, they say, the fans make a difference, no matter how few there are. "You've got to love the fans that we got," U.S. women's softball pitcher Jennie Finch said. "It adds a little more fun. We feed off the fans, seeing people waving American flags and chanting, 'USA!' It kind of gives you that extra edge."
Times staff writer Helene Elliott in Athens contributed to this report.