Simon Denyer

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author. Former bureau chief with The Washington Post and Reuters.

Jul 30, 2021
Published on: Washington Post
1 min read

TOKYO — DJ Daisuke Kikyo jumped in the air, pumped his fists and blasted hits such as “La Bamba,” “YMCA” and “Call Me Maybe” to hype up the mood at the beach volleyball match held at Tokyo’s Shiokaze Park on Thursday.

The video screen instructed fans to join in: “Stand Up! Stand Up! Now everybody clap your hands.” In the vast swathe of empty sunbaked seats, one member of an Olympic delegation gamely got to his feet. He was among a handful of people present.

The Tokyo Olympics is unlike any other Games, postponed a year because of the coronavirus and carried out without spectators at the vast majority of the Games venues to minimize the virus’s spread. To compensate for the lack of ambiance and fan support, organizers have come up with a variety of ways to manually create energy for the athletes competing in hollowed-out venues — to mixed results.

Minutes before the qualifying rounds in swimming last week, a world map popped up on the large screen. It displayed a real-time ticker of 34 million fans around the world “cheering” for the Olympians by clicking a “virtual cheer” button on the official Games website. White dots blinked intermittently on the map indicating where fans were watching the Games, from Los Angeles to Ethiopia to Mongolia to Australia.

The map displayed for about a minute inside the Tokyo Aquatics Center, a vast indoor swimming and diving pool. Most players and coaches were oblivious of the map silently showing fans cheering online.

At various venues, the scoreboard briefly airs videos of waving fans, similar to a giant Zoom call where everyone is talking on mute mode. The screen also flashed tweets from fans who used the hashtag #DearAthletes to send messages of support.

Other venues are piping in recorded crowd sounds to fill the dead air with ambient noises. At Wednesday’s opening baseball game in the Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium, dozens of journalists and Olympics staff members were present. But the noise from the speakers made it feel like there were thousands more.

Olympic officials acknowledge that digital fans can’t make up for human connection. But they said they wanted to use technology to help athletes feel supported as much as possible, and give the fans opportunities to express their emotions to those athletes.

“The world wants to engage with the world [and] wants to make their presence known in the venues. The athletes should not feel that they are alone. They are supported by hundreds, hundreds of millions of people around the world,” Yiannis Exarchos, chief executive of Olympic Broadcasting Services, said in a briefing on Wednesday.

Families of athletes were not allowed to travel with them this year. In lieu of in-person celebrations, organizers have set up screens in some venues where athletes can connect through live video links to their families and friends at home. British divers Tom Daley and Matty Lee waved enthusiastically at their families back home and clinked their gold medals together after winning the men’s 10-meter synchronized final this week.

Exarchos said the idea was “catching fire” and athletes loved it. It is something that will continue in future Games, he predicted, even as he acknowledged limitations.

“Human connection cannot be replicated digitally. We need to be honest between ourselves. And there’s something about human connection — you know, I’m a lover of technology, but there is so much that technology can do,” he said.

Three-by-three basketball, skateboarding and sports climbing are three events introduced for these Olympics, taking place at two “urban sports parks” in Tokyo. The idea was to create an urban environment to bring young people into the Games, to allow fans to get up close and engage with competitors. The absence is keenly felt.

At a recent three-by-three basketball game, a live DJ played songs by pop artists such as Daft Punk and Dua Lipa to a mostly empty stadium. The venue was compact enough that when coaches and teammates cheered, their applause and excitement rang throughout the court. But when they were quiet, the only sounds from the outdoor court were the squeaks of basketball shoes, referees’ whistle and the DJ’s music.

As much as any sport perhaps, beach volleyball is all about the fan experience, about atmosphere, about energy bouncing between, the spectators, the music and the players on the court. But at the Olympics beach volleyball game, the match felt like clapping with one hand.

“It’s disheartening,” said American player Nicholas Lucena after narrowing winning a pool game with partner Phil Dalhausser on Thursday, saying that fans definitely give players a lift. “This whole Olympics has been kind of different.”

Lucena said the pair were grateful to be here representing their country, but added: “The Olympics is about people coming together and celebrating the sport and that’s getting lost in a lot of this. So, you know, it’s sad if you think about it. You don’t want to go down that tunnel, just take it a day at a time, just do your job. It’s more like a job right now. ”