Since the modern introduction of the Olympic Games in 1896, international sports competition has not had two summer competitions that look alike. One of the litany of curiosities is the infamous St. Louis Marathon of 1904, in which fewer than half of the starters were able to finish the race; the 1956 Blood in the Water water polo game between Hungary and the USSR weeks after the Soviet invasion; and the two appearances of figure skating at the summer games in 1908 and 1920. It was not uncommon for countries to be boycotted or excluded from participating in the Olympic Games. But in its 125-year history, the fans have always stayed there – that is, until this year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo.
As with so much, COVID-19 has changed everything. Japan’s prime minister spurred the decision to ban viewers, even family members, by issuing an emergency decree in Tokyo earlier this month in response to rising COVID-19 cases and the spread of the Delta variant. So far it was planned to fill the competition venues with up to 50 percent capacity with local spectators.
From the perspective of sports psychologists, a fan-less Olympics is a real-world science experiment that will help researchers and clinicians see the real impact a fan base has on their players – and on the audience at home. The strange circumstances in which the Games are taking place may put some athletes under unexpected pressure. On Tuesday, superstar gymnast Simone Biles dropped out of the women’s team event, telling teammates and reporters that she was not in the right position to compete. “Those Olympics were really stressful,” Biles told the Washington Post. “Just as a whole, not having an audience. Many different variables play a role here. “
Biles’ fights are likely to be widespread among this year’s Olympic athletes. “On the pitch, on the field, wherever their competition is, the players have this insecurity. They are faced with a situation they have never experienced before, ”says Louise Byrne, Sports and Movement Psychology Practitioner at Optimize Potential, a UK sports psychology consultancy. Part of the ambiguity was due to the suddenness of the decision not to allow spectators weeks before the start of the game.
The 2020 Summer Olympics – even the time-warped name underlines the bizarre nature of the event – has similarities and differences to other major sporting events that had to find creative solutions for hosting competitions without spectators. Both the English Premier League and the Spanish La Liga supplemented the game broadcasts with audience noises from the soccer video game FIFA 20, mixed with game audio in real time. A Taiwanese baseball team and a German soccer team began populating the booths with cardboard displays of fans, and the trend took off internationally, particularly in U.S. baseball and basketball.
The pandemic has underscored the importance of a crowd to sports culture. That explains why sports leagues have had varying degrees of success in compensating for the lack of live fans, says Daniel Wann, a psychology professor at Murray State University in Kentucky who studies sports psychology and fan behavior. “It’s not that the NBA has a committee to figure out how to make fans up when they’re not there,” he says. “They just made up things over time and did as good a job as they could, but none of it seemed real to the casual or advanced fan.”
Cardboard clippings from fans were intended to alleviate disappointment over empty stands and even comfort the spectators at home. There’s a reason the camera settings of televised sports games often include a section of the bleachers, Wann says.
But the Olympics won’t adopt any of these props. There will be no fake crowd noises or two-dimensional depictions of fans for the USA or China teams. At one point the disappointment is already palpable. About 17 million Americans attended the opening ceremony, a fraction of the attendance at the previous Olympics. Those who tuned in described it as “creepy” and “dark”.
For one of the world’s best athletes, however, it is more than disappointing to undermine his expectations; it can also affect performance. Jamey Houle, senior sports psychologist at Ohio State University Athletics and former all-American gymnast, says that competitive athletes are trained in visualization – imagining doing a specific action or movement, such as doing a round hand jump while doing gymnastics. Without moving a muscle, players using visualization can cement neural connections and activate their motor cortex, the region in the brain that controls movement.
To visualize most effectively, according to Houle, athletes working with sports psychologists will try to simulate the conditions of the actual game as closely as possible. In preparation for the Tokyo Games, athletes may have practiced with fake crowd noises before the ban on spectators was announced, he says. Empty stadiums can thus have a measurable impact on player performance.
This phenomenon is based on a psychological concept called social relief, refers to a change in a person’s performance that occurs when others are nearby compared to a person who is alone. Top athletes tend to do better with a crowd than they do alone, while fewer competitors stall. “If there is not enough audience, theoretically you shouldn’t perform as high as before,” says Wann. According to this logic, fewer records can be set at these Olympics and the dispersion among players – the difference between the highest and lowest results – can be smaller.
The lack of personal fans affects home advantage, a statistically proven phenomenon that Japanese competitors would have benefited from this summer. Although there is mixed evidence of the effects of crowd noise on players’ focus and ability, Wann says his absence may be more distracting than his presence. Houle says when Ohio State played home games last season with no spectators, the stakes felt lower and that seemed to affect player performance. “The chatter I heard was that it felt like a high school football game,” he says.
The acoustics of a field, court or stadium without fans have unintended consequences for both players and spectators. Without the roar of a crowd, the noises in the game travel on – grunts, predictable, but also conversations among referees and, perhaps most embarrassingly, smacking conversations that shouldn’t be overheard. Wann says that he often observed sports fans during slow playing times and during the pandemic observed the reactions of the few fans allowed to play and the player himself: “You can see some of the people who are right around on the Place, eyes wide open during the time-outs. They hear things that they normally would not have heard. “