2021 Olympics: How the absence of the public could affect the performance of the athletes
- Alejandro Millán Valencia
- BBC News Mundo
Perhaps one of the most memorable images of the Tokyo Olympics will be that of the stands empty due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Despite the importance of the Olympics, the Japanese government declared a general state of emergency in the country due to Covid-19 on July 9. This measure increases the fear that there will be no spectators at the venues where the Olympic competitions will be held.
The organizing committee had previously indicated that foreign spectators would not be allowed to occupy the stands. This restriction was later extended to local spectators.
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It will be the first Olympic Games in over 120 years without the stadium’s stands being full.
Although this will not be the first sports competition without an audience – several disciplines have moved their tournaments to closed venues during the pandemic – it is unprecedented for a global event of this magnitude.
« It all depends… It can be a positive aspect for individual disciplines, where the audience can influence the concentration of the athletes, but a negative aspect for team sports which have a strong connection to the stands, » Mundo told BBC Dr. Laurie Heller, Professor of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University (United States).
For Heller, sound has always been part of the experience of high performance sport, both for competitors and for the public.
“Now there is one less element: the audience, the noise. And that also affects other aspects, in many ways: on the local athletes, on the foreigners, and even on the performance of the judges. creeps in everywhere « , says the psychologist, stressing that » there is a synchronization between the sound and the performance « .
When the pandemic broke out in March 2020, most mass sporting events were canceled.
However, a few months later, the big professional leagues gradually resumed competitions, in part to honor television contracts, but with the evidence that matches were to be played without the presence of the public.
Some athletes refused to participate. This is the case of American basketball star Lebron James. “No fans, no game,” he said.
However, the virus was going around the world, and filling a stadium with thousands of spectators was simply a risk not to be taken.
So we started to get used to seeing completely empty stadiums on TV screens.
« It’s easy to overlook the importance of the hearing experience at a sporting event. You don’t think about crowd noise until the crowd is gone, » she adds.
According to the academic, for some athletes – especially those used to large crowds – noise has a big influence on muscle performance.
“There are athletes who have the ability to synchronize the noise coming from the crowd and their performance. In other words, noise is a kind of fuel for their best performances,” Laurie Heller analyzes.
Perhaps this is the reason why many sports have tried to artificially reproduce the sound of the crowd. In fact, in the NBA, screens have been set up in arenas where supporters watch games from their homes.
However, and this is a point on which experts have agreed, on the other side are less popular sports where crowd noise is not essential.
« How it is going to affect it depends a lot on the individual. And the truth is that every athlete should already know how this factor is going to influence him, because he should have taken it into account in his preparation, » said to BBC Mundo Daniel Weigand, professor of sports performance psychology at Western States University (United States).
For Weigand, in many cases the issue of spectators is more important to fans or viewers of the sport than to the athletes themselves.
« You have to keep in mind that many athletes who participate in the Games do so with an almost non-existent audience, for a large part of their Olympic cycle, so it will not be a big change for some of them », explains he does.
In recent years, the host nations know they have an excellent opportunity to achieve historic performances.
South Korea is an example: before Seoul hosted the 1988 Olympics, this Asian country had won just seven gold medals (most of them in the previous Games, in Los Angeles in 1984).
At home, the South Korean athletes won 12 gold medals. That’s almost twice as much as they had four years earlier.
History repeats itself with the United Kingdom. In London in 2012, local athletes won 26 gold medals, the second best participation in their history (with 56 medals in London in 1908). Australia, Greece, China and the United States also did better at home.
Perhaps Japan was hoping for something similar: surpassing the 16 gold medals it won in Tokyo in 1964.
Mr Weigand points out that he worked for several years with a UK basketball team and that there was a strategy largely based on the dates of home games.
“Supporting your home crowd can take the pressure off you and put it on the opponent. It’s that simple. And that, along with good preparation, can get you an Olympic medal that you don’t have. may not have been able to get it in another country, ”says Weigand.
But all may not be lost for Japan.
In a recent report published in the journal PLoS ONE, researchers analyzed nearly 1,000 matches from the six major European football leagues that took place last year without spectators and compared them to previous seasons.
One of the main conclusions of the study, carried out among others by members of the German Sports University, is that the teams retained the home advantage despite the absence of supporters in the stands.
The sample (with matches in England, Italy, Portugal, Turkey, Germany and Spain) shows that home teams have won 43% of matches, compared to 45% in previous seasons.
« Current data shows that the home advantage is decreasing, but insignificantly, » note the study’s authors.
However, the document only refers to football, a sport where the crowd has always played a key role.
The influence of judges?
It is also clear that a judge can also have an influence on the outcome of wins or losses.
The Mexican diver Carlos Girón is the best testimony to this: during the Olympic Games in Moscow in 1980, marked by the American boycott, Girón performed an extraordinary lap of diving on the three-meter platform.
At the decisive moment of obtaining the gold medal, disputed to Russian Aleksandr Portnov, the latter made a catastrophic leap in favor of the Mexican.
However, one of the judges – Swede G. Olander – remarked that the noise of the crowd had « distracted » Portnov, and he was allowed to repeat the jump. In the end, it was the Russian who won the gold medal.
While it is true that such cases are quite exceptional, experts believe, the silence of the stands may provide some respite for the Olympic judges.
« I think the absence of a crowd will benefit the performance of the referees, who can focus and make better decisions, » said Weigand.
Judges, although trained, can also experience excessive noise, Heller says, which can cause an increased heart rate and therefore impair judgment.
And that additional stressor will not be present in Tokyo.
« The whistles, the shouts which are often direct insults, it puts a direct pressure on the judges, especially in popular sports like football or basketball. And even more if you are competing for a medal », underlines Weigand.
Another major finding of the PLoS ONE report is that, without an audience, referees are now reporting more fouls on the home side than before.
We will have to wait until the end of the Olympic Games to see what impact the silence and « relative loneliness » will have on the performances of the protagonists and the work of the referees in Tokyo.