TOKYO, Japan — The beloved American gymnast Sam Mikulak flipped off the parallel bars, stuck the landing and blew a kiss toward the camera. Those watching the men’s Olympics gymnastic competition on television back home knew they’d seen magic.
“Beautiful!” the broadcast announcer exclaimed. “Wow, that was fantastic!”
But all around Mikulak, the stretches of wooden benches meant to seat thousands sat mostly empty. Cheers erupted from a far back corner of the stands, where Simone Biles and the rest of the women's team screamed as loud as lungs could muster to cut through the eerie quiet of the pandemic Olympic venue.
In arenas across Tokyo, athletes accustomed to feeding off the deafening roar of the crowd are searching for new ways to feel Olympic enthusiasm.
They’re rooting for each other as loudly as they can. Some are trying to envision fans at home in their living rooms, leaning into TV screens. They’re blasting playlists in backstage training rooms. The lucky few permitted to compete with headphones keep their phones in their pockets, tuned to songs with a beat to replace the thrill of applause.
But others were surprised to find the silence motivating — like another day at the gym rather than the most prestigious competition on Earth. For them, the emptiness numbs the nerves and lets them fully focus on their sport.
“It’s kind of nice,” said Mikulak, a three-time Olympian whose parallel bar routine helped usher him to finals. It barely feels like an Olympics to him, he said, but when he stuck that landing and heard his own team cheering, that felt like enough.
“We created our own bubble. We had our own cheering section,” he said. “We created our own atmosphere. That’s what we thrive in, having each other’s backs.”
The next day, they returned the favor. The US men’s gymnastics team stood in the back waving an American flag and screaming for their female counterparts before the stadium fell quiet again, like the others scattered across Tokyo.
At the Sea Forest Waterway rowing venue, grandstands that stretch for nearly 2,000 meters (yards) are empty all the way to the finish line. The events are so quiet, rowers can hear the ripple of their own wake and the flap of hundreds of national flags whipping in the breeze on the shoreline. What is typically a swelling crescendo of chants and rush of adrenaline over the final 250 meters to the finish line replaced by the labored breathing wracking their lungs.
“When you cross the line and you’re hurting, and you feel like you are going to pass out and you don’t hear the ‘USA! USA!’, chant it hurts a little bit more,” said ÚS women’s rower Ellen Tomek, competing in her third Olympics and reminding herself that people are rooting from her from home. “Everyone is cheering us on, but when you are hurting and sad and you can’t look up for you mom in the stands, it sucks.”
Other athletes, too, are trying to capture the energy of those fans at home, absent here but still somewhere in the world cheering them on.
Japanese gymnast Mai Murakami said she was thrilled that her home country hosted the Olympics because she hoped many of her admirers could see her perform in person. When even Japanese citizens were barred from attending, she was devastated.
“I get influence from the crowd, and that motivates me,” she said through a translator. The silence rattled her, she said, and she made a mistake in her bars performance. “This is my first experience without crowds, so I haven’t had that experience before. I couldn’t imagine how it would be, so I tried to have no emotion.”
She tried to picture her fans watching on TVs and computers, applauding her from across the city. That brought comfort.
Ágatha Bednarczuk, a Brazilian beach volleyball player, won a silver medal in front of her home country in 2016. This Olympics, she said, feels very different.
“In Brazil, we had the biggest support. There were many, many people cheering for us, and here we had silence,” she said, drawing a flat line with her hand. “We need to put our emotion in the game, because we can’t receive emotion from them. For me, it’s very important to play with emotion so I had to bring it from inside.”
Many say they are reminding themselves that they made it here — to the Olympics, a lifelong dream for many despite extraordinary odds including a pandemic that has killed millions and postponed the Games, and for a time threatened to sink them entirely.
“I think that Olympic Games is enough of its own,” said Greece men’s water polo goaltender Emmanouil Zerdevas. “It’s a bit sad, but it is my first time in the Olympic Games, so I’m still happy to be here.”
At the silent skateboarding venue, U.S. skater Jagger Eaton found a mood booster in the phone he occasionally fished out of his right pocket while competing to change the music. Skateboarders, unlike other athletes, are able to shut out the quiet by wearing headphones as they compete. Eaton chose the aptly named “Rollin N Controllin” by rapper Dusty Locane as his soundtrack to launch himself into the first-ever Olympic skateboard event, men’s street.
“It got me right in the groove,” said Eaton, who struggled to skate for an empty crowd. “That’s why I am wearing headphones. When I wear headphones, I can create my own hype.”
But others have been surprised to find peace in the silence — and a stronger connection to their sport than they tend to feel when the pressure is on.
“Normally, coming into the finish line, when qualification is on the line, it's deafening,” said U.S. women’s rower Michelle Sechser. “It’s the hardest part of the race. Your heart is pounding, your legs are pounding, your breathing is rapid. And it’s absolutely silent. It makes it almost like Nirvana.”