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 favour. 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.