With most venues devoid of spectators during the Olympics, it fell upon the athletes to support each other.
Their applause, shouts of encouragement and joyful embraces became the soundtrack of the Tokyo Olympics, serving to emphasize the unusual shift in focus for this year’s event from the usual sensory-overloaded fanfare to simply sports and those who compete in them.
Under normal circumstances, Olympic venues would have been packed with visitors from around the world, creating a riot of color and sound that decorated front pages and leads newsreels.
But the seats were not completely empty. Fans were replaced by other athletes and coaches in the same disciplines, and they did their best to create an atmosphere — whether it be through cheers or thunder sticks.
At victory ceremonies, the traditional sight of officials placing medals around athletes’ necks — forbidden due to infection precautions — was replaced with teammates presenting each other with medals in a final act of camaraderie and mutual respect.
The lack of a roaring crowd may not have always made for thrilling television — indeed, one of the most popular things to discuss among journalists, besides the weather, was how much better these venues would have been with fans — but it allowed the cameras to home in on the smaller moments of humanity that are often drowned out by the spectacle of it all.
Perhaps the most unforgettable such moment came on Aug. 1 at the conclusion of the men’s high jump final, when Qatar’s Mutaz Barshim and Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi — longtime competitors and friends — agreed to share the gold medal rather than contest a jump-off. It was an interaction simply too good to be scripted.
At the skateboarding competition in Ariake, meanwhile, the incredible showings by the three women’s park medalists took a back seat to the sight of them rushing to cheer up fourth-place finisher Misugu Okamoto. Left in tears following a last-second wipeout on her daredevil final run, she came up just short of winning bronze — but was joyously lifted onto her companions’ shoulders all the same.
And then of course there was U.S. gymnast Simone Biles, who withdrew from most of her events rather than compete with the dreaded “twisties” and potentially risk serious injury. Praised by fellow athletes for her decision to put her health above what was sure to be several more medals for her collection, the 24-year-old was a regular fixture at Ariake Gymnastics Center, cheering on not only her teammates but every other gymnast on the floor.
In the absence of the usual media circus at the Olympic Village, athletes took up even that role, sharing their journeys — from cafeterias and guided walks to broken beds and knit cardigans — across social media and creating the authoritative narrative of how these Games have played out under the unprecedented conditions of the event’s safety bubble.
We’re all eager to see fans return to stadiums, whether that’s as soon as February’s Winter Games in Beijing or the 2024 Summer Games in Paris. But even after the Olympics return in all their excitement and excess, a part of us may grow to miss Tokyo 2020’s singular intimacy — and the way in which it managed to highlight the best of sport during the most trying of times.
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