NICOLA WHITFIELD | An Olympics like no other: why the greatest sporting spectacle on Earth will be so different this year

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(PHOTO: Gall Images/Getty Images)
(PHOTO: Gall Images/Getty Images)

I’m a big fan of the Olympics. The agony and the ecstasy, the underdogs winning against the odds, the characters, the incredible feats, the impossible strength, the amazing agility – it’s a veritable smorgasbord of thrill.

Each Games produces its standout athletes, whether it’s for their gravity-defying perfection (think gymnasts Nadia Comaneci and Simone Biles), their outrageousness (ski-jumper Eddie the Eagle), their tenacity (swimmer Eric “The Eel” Moussambani) or their inspiring back story (the Jamaican “Cool Runnings” bobsled team).

Watching the medal ceremony, while the national anthem of winners rings forth and gold medalists sing their hearts out as tears course down their cheeks, is real lump-in-the-throat stuff.

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But the Tokyo Games, which start on 23 July, will be a different affair. Very few spectators. No cheering, no hugging, no high-fiving, just polite clapping. Winners putting their own medals around their necks.

An opening and closing ceremony in near-empty stadiums. Masks at all times except when performing. Athletes being tested all the time – and for good reason, of course. Already some 70-odd people associated with the Games (including members of Team SA) have tested positive for Covid-19.

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This year’s Olympics will be very different, thanks to the pandemic. (PHOTO: Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Should the Games still be going on? Many argue that they shouldn’t, that the greed of organisers and sponsors has overruled legitimate concerns and objections. Surveys have shown that the majority of Japanese people don’t want the Olympics to go ahead in their capital city. The popularity of leader Yoshihide Suga is at an all-time low.

Yet go ahead it seems it will. It won’t be the same for couch potatoes without the roar of crowds and it remains to be seen whether the performances of the athletes will suffer.

READ MORE | The Tokyo Olympics will go ahead despite the pandemic - here's how it will be different

There have been studies to suggest sports people handle the absence of spectators in different ways – some miss the heady highs of instant gratification when they hear roars of approval when they achieve something. Without fans in the stands, their performance can be below par because they have no one to “perform to”.

Others, especially those prone to anxiety, find empty stands more soothing than ones heaving with spectators who can turn rabid if the event doesn’t go their way. The pressure of expectation, of pleasing people, is eased and they can concentrate on their discipline more.

So how will it be at Tokyo 2020? Will athletes flounder without the atmosphere of capacity crowds? Or will they continue to pull out all the stops, striving to soar higher, go faster and be stronger than anyone else?

I for one will be glued to the screen to see what happens. The inevitable drama will be heightened by the fact the Games are going ahead in unprecedented times. But for many of the athletes, this is their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to show what they’re made of – to show that the years of training and sacrifice were worth it. And to show the world why this is the greatest sporting spectacle on Earth.

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