Op-Ed: Preparing for Tokyo’s ‘Quiet Olympics’
I didn’t see much TV coverage of the U.S. Olympic track and field trials last month in Oregon. But one scene caught my eye.
It was good “old” Allyson Felix, finishing second in the women’s 400-meter run, earning her fifth trip to the Olympics.
I first interviewed Felix when she was a 17-year-old sprint sensation at Los Angeles Baptist High School and still called “Chicken Legs” by her teammates. It was heartwarming to see Felix, now 35 and a mother, bring her 2-year-old daughter, Camryn, onto the track and include her in the post-race spotlight and show everyone for the umpteenth time that it is possible to be a mother and one of the best athletes in the world.
Felix, the only woman to win six gold medals in Olympic track and field history, could very well win another medal in Tokyo. But neither her daughter nor the rest of her family will be a part of the celebration.
There are no family members allowed at these Olympics. In fact, no fans at all. Tokyo organizers have barred all spectators, for fear of these Games turning into a superspreader event in a nation that has lagged behind in vaccination against COVID-19.
Of course, we can still watch the Olympics on TV. There was simply way too much money to be made by too many people, mostly from global broadcast rights, for the Games to be canceled outright. But these Games will be very different from all others. These will be a sort of soundstage Olympics — the Quiet Games, if you will — and that’s kind of a shame.
These athletes have trained much of their lives for competition that begins this weekend. Now, the climactic event of a young athlete’s career and ... no family members allowed.
Pat Forde is one of the few parents who will be allowed to watch in person. He will be an accredited journalist in Tokyo, writing for Sports Illustrated. His daughter, Brooke, is a member of the U.S. Olympic swimming team. The rest of their family will watch on TV.
“That’s difficult, no doubt,” he says. “Starting with my wife, who cannot be there. I have a touch of survivor’s guilt being able to go.”
I covered 16 consecutive Olympics, winter and summer — from Los Angeles in 1984 to Sochi, Russia, in 2014 — and I think the biggest thing Tokyo will lack is the Olympic atmosphere that arises in a host city, inside and outside the competition areas.
Every Olympics has its problems. But, without exception, the Games I went to had a feeling of international camaraderie and good vibes unequaled by the hundreds of major events I covered around the world for nearly 40 years.
I used to arrive a week or so early to the Olympics, and I would immediately scout out the venues I was going to cover once the competition began.
They would be in various stages of readiness. Some needed just a little paint or landscaping. Some needed food stands or restrooms to be completed. Some needed whole grandstands to be erected. All of them were missing an Olympic venue’s greatest asset — spectators. The crowds would eventually show up, of course, sometimes in stages, getting larger by the day. Some venues would stand out and, through word of mouth, earn a reputation as the place to be at the Games.
Nowhere was this more true than at the beach volleyball competition at Bondi Beach during the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, Australia.
In the days leading up to the competition, the weather was a bit dreary and the beach fairly empty outside the stadium that had been built smack dab in the middle of the gorgeous strip of sand. But then the sun came out, and ticket holders started trickling, then pouring, in. Pretty soon, Bondi had become one raucous, sandy mosh pit of an Olympic venue.
If I close my eyes and think back 21 years, I can still hear the crowd of 10,000 fans sounding like 100,000 as they serenade the top Australian women’s beach pair, Kerri Pottharst and Natalie Cook, with countless chants of, “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi!”
In the women’s final, the Aussies, behind thunderous crowd support, upset Brazilian stars Shelda Bede and Adriana Behar for one of the most celebrated gold medals at the Sydney Games.
Japanese athletes will get no such advantage at the Tokyo Games. They know their fellow Japanese citizens will be pulling for them, but it’s a lot different to look around and see cold camera lenses where encouraging and possibly familiar faces would otherwise be.
“There will definitely be a missing element of adrenaline and excitement,” Forde says. “My hope is that the competitions will still be excellent and memorable.”
My guess is they will be. There will definitely be some fear and anxiety at these Games, and there will be plenty of people who still believe that the whole thing should have been canceled.
But I predict triumph and joy, too. After all, it’s still the Olympics. I’ve found that you attach those five interlocking rings, and magic happens.
David Leon Moore, a journalist, covered 16 Olympics as a sports writer for USA Today. He lives in Manzanita, Ore.
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