On top of physical training, athletes now have to consider an extra component when adapting to the new conditions.
People in the stands will be conspicuous by their absence at the coming Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, which are to be held a year late due to the pandemic. And as if the sporting challenges themselves weren’t enough, athletes now also have to face the mental challenge of competing without spectators.
This situation has already been anticipated by the organizers of this supreme athletic competition, which will feature pre-recorded crowds cheering and applauding in empty stadiums and venues, not to mention robots cheering athletes on.
There will also be screens for competitors to view mosaics of selfies from fans around the world.
Virtual reality helps a great deal, but experts warn that it’s no match for the impact of an actual crowd roaring their immediate and simultaneous approval of athletic feats.
Years of dedication. Years of training. It all comes down to this. Follow my journey in the next chapter of the Versus Series. Simone vs Herself comes to @FacebookWatch this summer! #SimoneVsHerself https://t.co/wyrA2NTv89 pic.twitter.com/RsAUh8l32v
— Simone Biles (@Simone_Biles) February 11, 2021
One of the athletes who will experience this situation firsthand is Dafne Navarro, a Mexican trampoline gymnast who qualified for Tokyo 2020.
In an interview for Tec Review, she says that she’s ready for anything.
“I have no problem competing without a crowd. It’s even almost something positive since it means I will have one less distraction to worry about. So I’m cool.”
Nevertheless, this gymnast, the first Mexican in history to qualify in trampoline gymnastics, says that it has been difficult to adapt to the new conditions of the competition which, just over a year ago, didn’t seem to be likely to change that much.
“I remember how, back in February 2020, just before dropping off to sleep, I would think that the Olympic Games were just about to start, but I had never imagined that I wouldn’t able to take part in the opening or closing ceremonies because now everything is strictly controlled.”
Athletes have had to shorten the length of their stay as much as possible to avoid Covid-19 infections. This is according to current protocols that must be followed.
Athletes will have to perform without interaction with the public which, while essential from an entertainment point of view, is not strictly necessary in terms of sporting performance.
In an interview for Tec Review, Naomi Chieko Valenzo Aoki, a Mexican who is also participating in Tokyo 2020, not as an athlete, but as a gymnastics appeals judge, says:
“There are athletes who thrive under pressure from spectators but there are others who feel more comfortable without an audience. All said and done, the Olympics is the supreme sports event and all athletes would expect there to be an audience.”
Naomi will take part as a member of the International Gymnastics Technical Committee, so she will be making sure that the gymnastics events comply with the established rules, including the performance of the judges.
“Everyone, of course, would like there to be spectators and to have normal competition conditions but we’re also acutley aware that we have to fight through this pandemic, and we’ve prepared ourselves for that,” she says.
Valenzo Aoki has had the privilege of talking to gymnasts from different countries participating at Tokyo 2020, and she has come to the conclusion that they are well prepared.
“Athletes have had a year and a half to mentally prepare, and they are just as excited as they would be for any previous Olympic Games. It’s the culmination of their sporting careers and they are totally focused on delivering peak performances.”
Naomi, who has already participated as a judge at Sydney 2000, Athens 2004, and Beijing 2008, as well as having been a senior judge at London 2012, says that she will be able to carry out her role at Tokyo 2020 to the same standard as before the change in protocols.
“In my case, as a judge, I must be extremely focused, and the truth is that I don’t notice a big difference whether there being spectators or not,” she adds.
Mexican idiosyncrasy will be tested.
Tec Review also consulted three sports psychologists, from ‘Psi Quiero Puedo‘, an online psychotherapy clinic, who argue that athletes in individual disciplines are more likely to achieve optimal performance than those involved in team sports, where things might change. Here’s their perspective.
“For example, in gymnastics and diving, for the most part, there’s no interaction with the audience and it might even prove beneficial to the athlete’s concentration,” points out Mayra Edith Cu Menes.
Whereas in the case of team sports, soccer would be the discipline whose performance level would be most adversely affected.
“Soccer could feel the effects the most because there have always been crowds, excitement and passion at soccer matches,” says Jessica Alejandra Acosta Labastida.
Although we shouldn’t make generalizations, especially when it comes to the human mind, it is possible to find cultural aspects that, in the case of Mexican athletes, could influence their performance at the next Olympic Games.
Osvaldo López Maguey says that Mexicans, in general, love celebrating, singing and cheering, and this kind of support will simply not be possible at Tokyo.
“The world over, Mexicans are known for being boisterous—that small group of 10 people providing enthusiastic support—at the Olympics, and this motivates the athletes.”
That’s why López Maguey recommends, before the competition gets under way, that athletes should be mentally prepared to cope with any unfavorable incidents that may crop up. One of the keys to athletes’ success at the games is to travel firm in the belief that the entire country is supporting them, albeit from a distance.