Whether they play in front of fans or not, these competitive athletes are still keen to win
Lausanne, Switzerland | By Coralie Febvre | Photos by Ronny Hartmann (Florian Wellbrock), Money Sharma (Mary Koms) and Clement Mahoudeau (Renaud Lavillenie)/AFP
An Olympics under the dark cloud of COVID-19 may not be the experience athletes had hoped for, but they are still eager to grab their chance to shine, be there fans or not.
With the postponed Olympics set to start on July 22, the organizers are still wrestling with the issue of how many spectators they can safely allow in venues. A decision on whether any foreign visitors will be allowed into the country to see the spectacle is expected before the torch relay begins, without any spectators because of coronavirus restrictions, on Mar. 25.
AFP asked athletes what they thought of the prospect of the Games in front of small crowds or even without any spectators at all.
American middle-distance runner Craig Engels could have expected to race in front of 68,000 spectators in the rebuilt National Stadium in Tokyo.
“It kind of sucks not having friends and family there because any time I’ve ever imagined finishing my final race at an Olympics, I imagine running up to the stands and hugging my parents,” said Engels, who beat Olympic champion Matthew Centrowitz Jr to win the US title in 2019.
“I think I’ll still be running in 2024 so at least my whole dream of the Olympic experience isn’t shot,” said the 26-year-old. “But it sucks for those athletes who are retiring this year.”
One of those is 38-year-old Indian boxer Mary Kom, who is a six-time world champion but whose best Olympic performance was a bronze in London in 2012.
“We are in a situation that is beyond our control and against our wishes. Therefore we have to accept the reality,” said the mother of three. “The empty or full stadium wouldn’t affect my bout and my performance though crowds and supporters make it interesting and thrilling.
“To me, the only thing that will be in my mind is to win the game and realize the long-cherished dream. The environment outside the ring is secondary.”
American sprinter Brittany Brown, the 200-meter silver medalist at the World Championships in Doha, said no fans would be “disappointing because this is every four years.”
“The Olympics is also a celebration. So knowing that your family and friends can’t be there is disheartening,” she said.
“At the same time it’s encouraging because you know that the organizers are taking proper precautions. It’s a weird dichotomy—you’re happy because they are prioritizing safety but also disappointed because you’re like ‘Gosh, I really wanted to share this moment’.”
Other track and field athletes agree they will miss the crowds. “It won’t be as euphoric, but we’ll deal with it,” said French world record holder Kevin Mayer, who won the decathlon in Rio in 2016.
French pole vaulter Renaud Lavillenie, who won the gold medal in London and silver in Rio—where he infamously broke down in tears at what he called the crowd’s biased support for eventual gold medalist and home favorite Thiago Braz, said he had learned to compete without fans.
“We’ve had a whole season behind closed doors,” he said. “It won’t have the same flavor but… when you put 10 people on the start line, everyone wants to win, whether there is an audience or not.”
Germany’s brightest medal hope in swimming, 1,500-meter freestyle and 10-kilometer open water world champion Florian Wellbrock said he is “definitely in favor” of the Games going ahead, albeit in front of empty seats.
It kind of sucks
“The fact that athletes can show in races what they have fought and worked for all their lives is and, remains for me, the most important meaning of the Olympic Games,” the 23-year-old swimmer told the German swimming federation’s magazine.
Some competitors in less popular sports see stadiums half-full rather than half-empty.
“Most of us don’t compete in front of crowds,” Bronwen Knox, an Australian water polo legend who won bronzes at the 2008 Beijing and London Olympics, told the Sydney Daily Telegraph.
Both Engels and Brown lamented the impact of likely health rules on the experience of the 11,000 competitors. “You hear about how fun the Olympic village is, all the stories about meeting new people,” Brown said.
“So part of the excitement of the Olympics is the experience of being an Olympic athlete that you’re thinking about, as well as competing and training. It’s disheartening that we won’t have that, but I’m sure there will be other experiences.”
“Obviously I need to make sure I make the team first,” Engels said. “But it will suck not being able to socialize as much in the Olympic village. I was really looking forward to going to basketball games and seeing all the other athletes.
“So it kind of sucks that that is not going to happen this year—but there’s always Paris.”
© Agence France-Presse